- A detailed set of aerial photos taken in the 1940s for oil exploration in northern Alaska has provided the most graphic evidence that the Arctic tundra is turning shrubbier and is “greening.”
- Satellite remote sensing indicates that, in sharp contrast, the boreal forests south of the tundra are “browning”—the result of dry conditions, more intense fires, and insect infestations.
- Both the greening and the browning can be attributed to global climate change. Thee ecosystem transitions are likely to profoundly affect the wildlife and human inhabitants of the region and may even intensify global warming.
The year was 1944. World War II was showing signs of winding down, but predictions that the Japanese would fight to the bitter end had the Allies gravely concerned that they would run out of gasoline for the war effort. The 23-million-acre Naval Petroleum Reserve in northern Alaska was a prime location for finding new sources of oil, and the U.S. Navy decided to explore. But the navy had a problem: no maps. So it decided to take an exceptionally detailed set of aerial photographs.
Basing out of Ladd Field, near Fairbanks, surveyors mounted a massive K-18 camera in the open door of a twin-engine Beechcraft. Over several years, flying low and slow, they took thousands of photographs of Alaska’s North Slope, extending from the Arctic Ocean south to the Brooks Range, and of the forested valleys on the south side of the range—itself a part of the boreal forest of evergreens and deciduous trees that stretches across a large swath of the Arctic.
This article was originally published with the title Arctic Plants Feel the Heat.