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Amy S. Hendricks
,
Uma S. Bhatt
,
Gerald V. Frost
,
Donald A. Walker
,
Peter A. Bieniek
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Martha K. Raynolds
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Rick T. Lader
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Howard E. Epstein
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Jorge E. Pinzon
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Compton J. Tucker
, and
Josefino C. Comiso

Abstract

Rapidly warming temperatures in the Arctic are driving increasing tundra vegetation productivity, evidenced in both the satellite derived normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) imagery and field studies. These trends, however, are not uniformly positive across the circumpolar Arctic. One notable region of negative linear NDVI trends that have persisted over the last 15 years is southwest Alaska’s Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta (YKD). Negative NDVI trends in the YKD region appear inconsistent with our understanding since tundra vegetation is temperature-limited and air temperatures have increased on the YKD. Analysis over a 40-yr record from 1982 to 2021 reveals distinct decadal variability in the NDVI time series, which continues to produce negative linear trends. Similar decadal variability is also evident in summer warmth and 100-km coastal zone spring sea ice concentrations. This suggests that decadal climate variations can dominate the trends of NDVI through their influence on the drivers of tundra vegetation, namely, coastal sea ice concentrations and summer warmth. The relationships among sea ice, summer warmth, and NDVI have changed over the 40-yr record. Seasonality analysis since 1982 shows declining sea ice concentration in spring is followed by trends of increasing temperatures, but weakly declining NDVI during the growing season. An additional key finding is that since early 2010s, the relationships between sea ice concentration and summer warmth, and sea ice concentration and NDVI have strengthened, while the relationship between NDVI and summer warmth has weakened, indicating that temperature may no longer be the primary limiting factor for Arctic tundra vegetation on the YKD.

Significance Statement

This paper addresses a curiosity of regional Arctic climate change, which is that despite increasing temperatures, spatially and temporally declining trends of vegetation productivity on the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta appear in satellite data. This study bridges our understanding of Arctic climate relationships at varying scales and informs questions about how these relationships may change in the future.

Open access