A symbolic tree in the Russian Arctic

Researchers at Samoylov Station in the Lena Delta recently discovered the first larches in the region – an absolute first!

A larch on Samoylov Island
A larch on Samoylov Island (Photo: Alfred-Wegener-Institut)

In June 2014, Gunara Nugamatsyamova from Kazan Federal University (Russia) discovered a 70-cm-tall and likely more than 20-year-old larch tree on Samoylov Island, very near the German-Russian research station of the same name. The bright-green Dahurian Larch (Larix gmelinii), which is typical of Siberia, seems to feel right at home, and its roots are already putting out new shoots. There’s just one catch: the larch was found in the Arctic tundra north of the treeline, where theoretically no trees should be able to grow.

In the course of their work, the researchers stationed on Samoylov Island observe the constantly changing local flora. But these changes are still small-scale and progress very slowly, making them undetectable to satellite imaging – a fact that didn’t stop Katja Abramova (Lena Delta Reserve near Tiksi, Russia) from finding a smaller (only 30-cm-“tall”) larch in 2013, though it lost its crown sometime last winter. Further, members of the Reserve staff and the local populace have begun regularly reporting a growing number of “invasive” alders to Station Engineer Günther Stoof from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI).

An initial explanation for this phenomenon is a shift of the treeline to the north as a result of the warming climate. The timberline runs along a parallel where the average temperature in the warmest summer month never tops 10 °C. Nevertheless individual trees can also be found farther north, in the “forest-tundra”, a transitional zone that can measure several hundred kilometres across. In order for trees to grow in this region, the preconditions are sufficient moisture and as long a warm period as possible; as such, not only the high-temperature values but also the duration of the seasons play an important part in climate change, one that merits further research.

Siberia's timberline
Siberia's timberline (Photo: Boris Biskaborn)
Map over Siberia
Map over Siberia (Photo: eskp.de/CC BY-SA)
The Samoylov Island in the Lena Delta
The Samoylov Island in the Lena Delta (Photo: ESA, bearbeitet)

Climate change or the human presence in the area?

So far, the researchers haven’t ventured to make any concrete statements as to whether or not climate change is actually responsible for the trees’ appearance on the island. Despite all their best efforts, it’s possible that the increasing research activities in the expanding working area around the station influenced the ecosystem. In this regard, Moritz Langer (AWI) points out that a temperature increase of more than 1° C over the past 10 years has been recorded in the permafrost on Samoylov – which is 10 times the figure for warming on a global scale. Further, 20 years ago there was very little activity at the research station; as such, given the tree’s comparatively high age, “research tourism” can’t be the sole explanation for its appearance. And even if we assume the tree was somehow unintentionally brought here by the people in the region, the amazing fact is that it managed to survive under the local conditions. For Stefan Kruse (AWI) that’s sufficient evidence that this species of larch is now capable of growing far north of the treeline.

In the end, the symbolic meaning of the tree’s presence in the arctic tundra remains: humankind shapes the environment, regardless of whether the newcomers to the Lena Delta are due to climate change or “only” to the direct influence of humans working in the area. Nature is changing, especially in the High North, where even the slightest changes can have drastic consequences.  (Boris Biskaborn)

Links to the AWI permafrost research