Temperature is increasing at unprecedented rates across most of the tundra biome. Remote-sensing data indicate that contemporary climate warming has already resulted in increased productivity over much of the Arctic, but plot-based evidence for vegetation transformation is not widespread. We analysed change in tundra vegetation surveyed between 1980 and 2010 in 158 plant communities spread across 46 locations. We found biome-wide trends of increased height of the plant canopy and maximum observed plant height for most vascular growth forms; increased abundance of litter; increased abundance of evergreen, low-growing and tall shrubs; and decreased abundance of bare ground. Intersite comparisons indicated an association between the degree of summer warming and change in vascular plant abundance, with shrubs, forbs and rushes increasing with warming. However, the association was dependent on the climate zone, the moisture regime and the presence of permafrost. Our data provide plot-scale evidence linking changes in vascular plant abundance to local summer warming in widely dispersed tundra locations across the globe. © 2012 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.