Thresholds for Boreal Biome Transitions

M. Scheffer, M. Hirota, M. Holmgren, E.H. van Nes, F.S. Chapin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

215 Citations (Scopus)


Although the boreal region is warming twice as fast as the global average, the way in which the vast boreal forests and tundras may respond is poorly understood. Using satellite data, we reveal marked alternative modes in the frequency distributions of boreal tree cover. At the northern end and at the dry continental southern extremes, treeless tundra and steppe, respectively, are the only possible states. However, over a broad intermediate temperature range, these treeless states coexist with boreal forest (~75% tree cover) and with two more open woodland states (~20% and ~45% tree cover). Intermediate tree covers (e.g., ~10%, ~30%, and ~60% tree cover) between these distinct states are relatively rare, suggesting that they may represent unstable states where the system dwells only transiently. Mechanisms for such instabilities remain to be unraveled, but our results have important implications for the anticipated response of these ecosystems to climatic change. The data reveal that boreal forest shows no gradual decline in tree cover toward its limits. Instead, our analysis suggests that it becomes less resilient in the sense that it may more easily shift into a sparse woodland or treeless state. Similarly, the relative scarcity of the intermediate ~10% tree cover suggests that tundra may shift relatively abruptly to a more abundant tree cover. If our inferences are correct, climate change may invoke massive nonlinear shifts in boreal biomes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21384-21389
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number52
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • arctic forest-tundra
  • climate-change
  • fire regime
  • global resilience
  • interior alaska
  • tropical forest
  • white spruce
  • tree
  • savanna
  • canada


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