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Taiga forests shift towards Arctic due to warming climate, scientists say

Current processes in the Arctic are unique for recent 7,000 years, according to the expert

YEKATERINBURG, February 4. /TASS/. The taiga forests in West Siberia are shifting towards the North Pole, scientists of the Tyumen State University and their Finnish colleagues say. The project’s participant Viktor Gennadinik told TASS similar changed had been reported by experts of the Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology (the Urals Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences).

"The climate warming on the planet, which, in our opinion, is caused first of all not by the human aspect, but, most probably, by a big temporary warmth stream from the Sun, is most evident in the planet’s polar areas," the expert said. "Presently, we can see a stable growth of temperatures in Northern Eurasia, and a consequent latitudinal shift of landscapes towards the North Pole by 100-150 kilometers over recent 40 years - the taiga shifts towards high latitudes, where the tundra used to be."

The joint project with the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Meteorological Institute is supported by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR). The project’s participants will describe the system of relations between the atmosphere, the permafrost and plants, due to which productive ecosystems replace near-polar ecosystems.

"There are two physical subjects making up the microclimates that influence directly the North’s landscapes - those are the planetary boundary layer (PBL) and the permafrost," the scientist said. "They both act as screens, regulating flows of substance and energy. The Finnish partners focus on PBL, and our University studies changes in the permafrost and consequences from the warming - namely, conditions of the nature ecosystems."

Spruce replaces larch and pushes away blueberries

According to the Institute’s expert Rashit Khantemirov, the tundra area has been shrinking due to attacking forests. At the same time, scientists do not see trees moving actively northbound on plains, he told TASS.

"Plants lag behind the climate changes, they move very slowly: roughly one meter a year. On plains, the shift is not big, though we register more dry trees there. Where about 100 years ago at least one spruce used to grow amid larches, nowadays we see a forest of spruces," he said, stressing the spruces had been replacing larches, which are typical for Arctic regions.

The warming in the Arctic zone favors comfortable climate conditions not only for trees, including larch, which density has been growing, but also for pests. "The potential threat is that trees move slowly, while pests spread quickly. Why would larch grow on the Yamal, but you wouldn’t see it in the south? Because pests would not allow its reproduction. Quite possibly, the pests’ northern border would also shift further towards the north," he told TASS. Pests cannot survive the Arctic winters, he added.

Current processes in the Arctic are unique for recent 7,000 years, he said.

According to the Institute’s another representative, Andrei Grigoryev, an expert in dendrology, spruce shifts actively into the mountainous tundra, thus pushing away bushes and herbaceous plants, like, for example, blueberries. This process is evident in mountains of the South Urals. "Our scientists have conducted studies on tops of mountains in the Urals, Europe and West Siberia, in areas clear from trees. The research results show that forest and forest-meadow species of herbaceous plants have been penetrating the tundra community," he said.

Transforming ecosystems

The Russian institute participates in projects with counterparts from France and Norway, including studies of the climate changes’ impact on terrestrial vertebrates in the Arctic. Scientists install photo cameras and registering equipment in fields.

Over recent years, they have reported shrinking populations of small rodents - lemmings. "In the past century, specialists saw peaks and drops of the population. Presently, those peaks do not happen, and we explain this fact by the warming," the Institute’s expert Vasiliy Sokolov told TASS. This transformation has changed the behavior of predators that feed on lemmings.

Scientists have noted different behavior of rough-legged buzzards that now tend to live near another predator - peregrine falcon. The reason for that is that peregrine falcon protects from predators not only its territory, but also the rodents living there. "Those rodents, on the other hand, are the favorite food of buzzards, that come to live inside such territories, thus having successful reproduction there," the scientist said.

Fewer lemmings may affect populations of other birds. "For example, if there are many lemmings, all predators eat only them, and thus other birds of the tundra make safely their nests: ducks, waders, and passerine birds. They used to bring up nestlings without fearing their nests may be attacked. And in years, where lemmings were fewer, practically all eggs and nestlings were eaten up by predators: Arctic foxes, weasels, Pomeranians and others," he added.

Some birds, like geese, now try to live closer to predators, which protect their territories from other threats.

New threats

In addition to those changes, scientists observe new species of animals which come to "settle" in the Arctic. One of them is crow - its nests have been noticed further up the north.

"Their choice depends on the feed, and every year the feeding situation is different. For example, if many deer die, more predators and scavengers enter the tundra and multiply there. There’s another rule: if some specie makes nests at a certain location, then it comes there following years, too," the scientist said.

Earlier, Viktor Shtro of the Academy of Sciences’ Urals Branch’s research station told TASS about crow’s nests seen in the tundra. According to him, crows destroy nests of other birds, and may affect the tundra’s fauna.