In the mountains of the Arctic, flowers like the snow buttercup rely on snow drifts to thrive. With rising temperature, snow coverage is likely to shrink, threatening endemic plant species. Photo by Julia Kemppinen/University of Helsinki
Oct. 23 (UPI) -- Snow coverage is on the decline in the Arctic, and new research suggests the trend is bad news for biodiversity.
Many native plant species in the Arctic rely on a thick, insulating layer of snow for protection from harsh winter conditions. Significant snow coverage also ensures a shorter growing season, preventing plants from southern latitudes from taking root.
When scientists from the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Environment Institute looked at how rising temperatures will impact snow coverage and plant biodiversity, they found a more temperate climate will benefit many species, but also push many endangered and endemic species to higher elevations.
"Though the significance of snow is widely recognized, winter conditions are often ignored when studying the northern and mountainous areas," Pekka Niittynen, a doctoral student at the University of Helsinki, said in a news release.
Many of the Arctic and mountain plants unique to northern climes are specially adapted to grow and flower during the brief summer season. But satellite data collected since 1980 suggests the snow is disappearing earlier and earlier, resulting in a longer growing season.
Researchers used satellite and remote sensing data, combined with species distribution models, to predict the influence of rising temperatures on biodiversity. Their analysis showed longer growing seasons allow southern species to establish themselves and outcompete endemic species.
"Our findings show that the future changes in northern species populations may be abrupt, giving rise to ecological surprises that are hard to predict, such as fast eradication of populations in some places and the invasion of flexible species into new places," said Risto Heikkinen, senior researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute.
Many northern plant species rely on snow drifts to thrive. Rising temperatures are expected to shrink Arctic snow drifts.
"Decreasing drifts will increase the risk for extinction for plants like the snow buttercup, mountain sorrel and mossplant," said Miska Luoto, professor of natural geography at the University of Helsinki.
Researchers shared their analysis of snow coverage and Arctic biodiversity this week in the journal Nature Climate Change.