A caribou and her calf in Greenland. Shifting timing for the blooming of plants may affect the availability of nutritious food for herbivores in the Arctic, a study found. Credit Eric Post/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


Every spring, Arctic plants rely on cues from the environment — like warmer weather, longer days and shrinking ice sheets — to tell them when they should awaken from winter’s slumber. But as the climate warms, these plants are getting mixed signals about when to rouse...

In a new paper published in Biology Letters, researchers detail findings from a 12-year study of when plant species in the low Arctic region of Greenland first bud in the spring. Timing varied from plant to plant, but one speedy sedge species — a flowering, grasslike herb — stirred a full 26 days earlier than it did a decade ago.

The change corresponds to nearly an entire growing season, and breaks the record for the greatest shift in spring-bloom timing that the scientists have observed in the Arctic.

Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change

Changes in growing seasons were associated with diminishing sea ice cover, which serves as a reminder that this loss may “have widespread effects on life on land,” said Jeffrey Kerby, an environmental studies researcher at Dartmouth College and an author of the study.

Shifting patterns of plant growth may affect the availability of nutritious food for herbivores, for example. Dr. Kerby and his colleagues found in 2013 that fewer caribou calves were born and more died early in years when spring plant growth preceded the animal’s calving season.

Over all, the difference between early bloomers and late bloomers widened, with longer periods of no plants blooming at all, the researchers found in the new study. According to Eric Post, an ecology professor at the University of California, Davis and the paper’s lead author, transformations in the Arctic are happening so rapidly that they are discernible to researchers who have studied its ecology for decades.

“As a climate scientist who studies the start of spring, I struggle to answer the question, ‘What is spring?’” said Heidi Steltzer, a professor at Fort Lewis College and author of the paper.

“A longer spring opens up the potential for gaps — points in time when it would be spring with no springlike events occurring. Would this still be spring?”

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