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C424: The changing climate of Arctic Russia and its role in governing the present and future northern treeline (Lead Supervisor: Gareth Marshall, British Antarctic Survey)

Supervisors: Gareth Marshall (British Antarctic Survey), Gareth Rees (Geography/SPRI), Andrew Orr (British Antarctic Survey) and Olga Tutubalina (Moscow State University)

Importance of the area of research:

The Arctic and subarctic have seen the greatest warming of the Earth’s surface in recent decades, resulting in marked changes in the physical environment including the region’s terrestrial ecosystems. Higher temperatures, which climate models predict will rise further, are likely to produce a northern extension of the boreal forest, which, in turn, will lead to a lowering of the local reflectance and a positive feedback on temperatures.

However, tree growth is also affected by moisture availability during the growing season. In the Arctic, this is related to the amount of snowfall and the timing of the melt season. Climate projections generally indicate greater snowfall in Arctic Russia, which has the potential to delay tree growth and thus decouple plant success from temperature. Consequently, there is significant uncertainty in future spatial and temporal changes in the northern treeline. Reducing these uncertainties will allow us to better determine the impact that changing vegetation in Arctic Russia will have on global temperature, through changes in the regional albedo, and also on the carbon cycle via altered uptake of carbon dioxide.

Project summary:

The northern treeline is an important indicator of climate change: furthermore, any variations in it will feed back directly onto processes governing the rate of such changes. Using a combination of multifarious observations and datasets, including output from new regional climate model runs, this project will:

(i) Determine the key climatic variables that have governed the movement of the northern treeline across Arctic Russia in recent decades

(ii) Analyse how these variables are likely to change in the future, based on a range of different emission scenarios

(iii) Hence, determine the range and uncertainty of the spatial and temporal variability of future treeline changes across Arctic Russia.

What the student will do:

• Map the northern treeline from remotely-sensed data at a range of spatial scales. Established collaborators at Moscow State University, which the student will visit for two weeks, and other Russian institutions will help with data acquisition and interpretation.

• Collate appropriate climate datasets: snow cover (observations, satellite data and climate reanalyses) and near-surface temperature (observations and climate reanalyses).

• Use statistical analysis to determine the key meteorological variables governing the northern treeline based on recent data.

• Use IPCC model output to drive a regional model to estimate how the key climatic variables will change into the future. The regional model has the potential to include interactive vegetation.

• Determine the likelihood of different rates of future northern treeline change across Russia to the end of the 21st Century.

Although not integral to the project, there is the potential to undertake supplementary spatial-scale process-based fieldwork in Arctic Russia through competitive funding from the International Network for Terrestrial Research for Monitoring in the Arctic (INTERACT), the University and other sources.

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Hofgaard, A., Tømmervik, H., Rees, G., & Hanssen, F. 2013. Latitudinal forest advance in northernmost Norway since the early 20th century. Journal of Biogeography, vol. 40, pp.938-949., DOI:10.1111/jbi.12053.

MacDonald, G.M., Kremenetski, K.V. & Beilman, D.W. 2008. Climate change and the northern Russian treeline zone. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol. 363, pp.2285-2299., DOI:10.1098/rstb.2007.2200.

Vaganov, E.A., Hughes, M.K., Kirdyanov, A.V., Schweingruber, F.H. & Silkin, P.P. 1999. Influence of snowfall and melt timing on tree growth in subarctic Eurasia. Nature, vol. 400, pp.149-151., DOI:10.1038/22087.

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project.

Other projects available from the Lead Supervisor can be viewed here.

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