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Keywords:

  • albedo;
  • climate change;
  • Pan-arctic;
  • snow melt;
  • snow return

Abstract

The warming associated with changes in snow cover in northern high-latitude terrestrial regions represents an important energy feedback to the climate system. Here, we simulate snow cover-climate feedbacks (i.e. changes in snow cover on atmospheric heating) across the Pan-arctic over two distinct warming periods during the 20th century, 1910–1940 and 1970–2000. We offer evidence that increases in snow cover–climate feedbacks during 1970–2000 were nearly three times larger than during 1910–1940 because the recent snow-cover change occurred in spring, when radiation load is highest, rather than in autumn. Based on linear regression analysis, we also detected a greater sensitivity of snow cover–climate feedbacks to temperature trends during the more recent time period. Pan-arctic vegetation types differed substantially in snow cover–climate feedbacks. Those with a high seasonal contrast in albedo, such as tundra, showed much larger changes in atmospheric heating than did those with a low seasonal contrast in albedo, such as forests, even if the changes in snow-cover duration were similar across the vegetation types. These changes in energy exchange warrant careful consideration in studies of climate change, particularly with respect to associated shifts in vegetation between forests, grasslands, and tundra.