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Complex causes behind Arctic greening, researchers say

The greening of the Arctic is one of the most visible effects of climate change, but new research suggests the reasons for the phenomena are surprisingly varied and complex.

The Arctic has become increasingly green over the last few decades, with plants growing taller than usual and putting out leaves earlier and earlier in the spring. Photo by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Cindy Starr
The Arctic has become increasingly green over the last few decades, with plants growing taller than usual and putting out leaves earlier and earlier in the spring. Photo by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Cindy Starr

Jan. 31 (UPI) -- The greening of the Arctic is one of the most visible effects of climate change, but new research suggests the reasons for the phenomena are surprisingly varied and complex.

As satellite images have revealed, snow is melting earlier each year, allowing the plants that comprise the Arctic tundra to put out leaves earlier in the spring. Plants are getting thicker and taller, and vegetation is expanding into previously barren pars of the Arctic.

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Early efforts to document the phenomena were relatively crude, but new satellite and drone technologies have helped scientists analyze Arctic greening in greater detail.

"New technologies including sensors on drones, planes and satellites, are enabling scientists to track emerging patterns of greening found within satellite pixels that cover the size of football fields," Isla Myers-Smith, geoscientist at the University of Edinburgh, said in a news release.

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Myers-Smith was one of 40 scientists from 36 institutions that looked at the ways the study of Arctic greening has become more sophisticated in recent years.

The team shared their analysis of Arctic greening research in a new paper, published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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According to the paper's authors, a new consensus has emerged.

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"The underlying causes and future dynamics of so-called Arctic greening and browning trends are more complex, variable and inherently scale-dependent than previously thought," researchers wrote.

The consensus was made possible, in part, by new techniques for marrying airborne observations, images and data captured by satellites and drones, with data collected on the ground.

"Besides collecting new imagery, advances in how we process and analyze these data -- even imagery that is decades old -- are revolutionizing how we understand the past, present, and future of the Arctic," said Jeffrey Kerby, who was working as a research fellow Dartmouth College while conducting the research.

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Because Arctic tundra contains so much sequestered carbon, the effects of climate change on the region could result in the acceleration of global warming. Thus, it is essential for scientists to decipher the relationship between climate change and Arctic greening. The authors of the latest paper hope their work can be used as a roadmap for doing just that.

"We look forward to the impact that this work will have on our collective understanding of the Arctic for generations to come," said Alex Moen, vice president of explorer programs at the National Geographic Society.

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