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Attribution of divergent northern vegetation growth responses to lengthening non-frozen seasons using satellite optical-NIR and microwave remote sensing

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The non-frozen (NF) season duration strongly influences the northern carbon cycle where frozen (FR) temperatures are a major constraint to biological processes. The landscape freeze-thaw (FT) signal from satellite microwave remote sensing provides a surrogate measure of FR temperature constraints to ecosystem productivity, trace gas exchange, and surface water mobility. We analysed a new global satellite data record of daily landscape FT dynamics derived from temporal classification of overlapping SMMR and SSM/I 37 GHz frequency brightness temperatures (T b). The FT record was used to quantify regional patterns, annual variability, and trends in the NF season over northern (≥45°N) vegetated land areas. The ecological significance of these changes was evaluated against satellite normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) anomalies, estimated moisture and temperature constraints to productivity determined from meteorological reanalysis, and atmospheric CO2 records. The FT record shows a lengthening (2.4 days decade−1; p < 0.005) mean annual NF season trend (1979–2010) for the high northern latitudes that is 26% larger than the Northern Hemisphere trend. The NDVI summer growth response to these changes is spatially complex and coincides with local dominance of cold temperature or moisture constraints to productivity. Longer NF seasons are predominantly enhancing productivity in cold temperature-constrained areas, whereas these effects are reduced or reversed in more moisture-constrained areas. Longer NF seasons also increase the atmospheric CO2 seasonal amplitude by enhancing both regional carbon uptake and emissions. We find that cold temperature constraints to northern growing seasons are relaxing, whereas potential benefits for productivity and carbon sink activity are becoming more dependent on the terrestrial water balance and supply of plant-available moisture needed to meet additional water use demands under a warming climate.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Flathead Lake Biological Station, The University of Montana, Polson, MT, 59860, USA 2: Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 02138, USA 3: Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, 85721, USA 4: Earth System Science, The University of California, Irvine, CA, 92697, USA 5: Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, The City College of New York, New York, NY, 10031, USA

Publication date: May 19, 2014

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