Climate change is altering mountain vegetation at large scale, European research says

Jan 08, 2012
This alpine species (Nevadensia purpurea) could disappear from some European mountains in the next few decades. Credit: Harald Pauli

The decade from 2000 to 2009 was the warmest since global climate has been measured, and while localized studies have shown evidence of changes in mountain plant communities that reflect this warming trend, no study has yet taken a continental-scale view of the situation – until now.

With the publication of "Continent-wide response of mountain vegetation to climate change," scheduled for Advance Online Publication (AOP) in Nature Climate Change on 8 January, researchers from 13 countries report clear and statistically significant evidence of a continent-wide warming effect on mountain plant communities.

The findings are "clearly significant," says Ottar Michelsen, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and one of the article's co-authors. "You can find studies that have shown an effect locally, and where researchers try to say something more globally, but in this case, when you have so many mountains in so many regions and can show an effect, that's a big thing."

The article describes the results of a comprehensive effort to measure plant community changes in the mountains over the whole of Europe, with nearly a decade of time between the sampling efforts. Researchers looked at 60 summit sites and 867 vegetation samples from 17 mountain areas across Europe in 2001 and then revisited the mountain sample sites in 2008. In Norway, researchers studied mountain plots in the Dovre region of central Norway.

By comparing the vegetation found in the sample plots in 2001 and 2008, the researchers were able to see a clear shift in the species in the plots towards species that preferred warmer temperatures.

All 32 authors involved in the study used the same sampling procedures enabling pan-continental comparisons to be made for the first time, here at the Austrian Hochschwab mountains. Credit: Harald Pauli

More specifically, the researchers assigned what they called an altitudinal rank to all 764 plant species included in the study. The rank reflects the temperature at which each species has its optimum performance. And because altitude and temperature are directly correlated in each mountain area (the higher your altitude in the mountains, in general, the colder it will be) the location on the mountain where a plant is found reflects its response to the actual temperature at that location.

By summing the altitudinal ranks for the species in the plots, the researchers then used a mathematical formula to give each plot a "thermic vegetation indicator". The indicator was calculated for each plot for 2001 and 2008, and the change in the indicator over the 7 years between sample periods showed researchers whether the mix of plants in each plot had stayed the same or shifted on average to plant types that preferred either colder or warmer temperatures. They then combined the data for the 17 mountain areas for the two time periods to get a continental-scale view of what kind of change, if any, might be underway.

"The transformation of plant communities on a continental scale within less than a decade can be considered a rapid ecosystem response to ongoing climate warming," the researchers wrote. "Although the signal is not statistically significant for single mountain regions, it is clearly significant when data throughout Europe are pooled."

The finding is significant both because the shift in plant communities could be clearly detected over time, but also because it suggests that plants adapted to colder temperatures that are now found in alpine plant communities will be subject to more competition, which "may lead to declines or even local disappearance of alpine plant species," the researchers note. "In fact, declines of extreme high-altitude species at their lower range margins have recently been observed in the Alps."

Explore further: Confucian thought and China's environmental dilemmas

More information: Continent-wide response of mountain vegetation to climate change. Nature Climate Change, Jan 8, 2012 (Online ahead of print) DOI:10.1038/NCLIMATE1329

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Desert Dust Alters Ecology of Colorado Alpine Meadows

Jun 29, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Accelerated snowmelt--precipitated by desert dust blowing into the mountains--changes how alpine plants respond to seasonal climate cues that regulate their life cycles, according to results ...

Short-lived seed of alpine plants

Sep 21, 2011

Scientists from the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership have found that the seeds of alpine plants are shorter lived than their lowland relatives. This will have implications for seed conservation strategies ...

Rare alpine insect may disappear with glaciers

Apr 05, 2011

Loss of glaciers and snowpack due to climate warming in alpine regions is putting pressure on a rare aquatic insect, the meltwater stonefly, according to a study recently released in Climatic Change Letters.

Recommended for you

UN sends team to clean up Bangladesh oil spill

1 hour ago

The United Nations said Thursday it has sent a team of international experts to Bangladesh to help clean up the world's largest mangrove forest, more than a week after it was hit by a huge oil spill.

How will climate change transform agriculture?

1 hour ago

Climate change impacts will require major but very uncertain transformations of global agriculture systems by mid-century, according to new research from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Report: Radiation leak at nuclear dump was small

2 hours ago

A final report by independent researchers shows the radiation leak from the federal government's underground nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico was small and localized.

Confucian thought and China's environmental dilemmas

6 hours ago

Conventional wisdom holds that China - the world's most populous country - is an inveterate polluter, that it puts economic goals above conservation in every instance. So China's recent moves toward an apparent ...

Deforestation threatens species richness in streams

6 hours ago

With a population of 1.3 billion, China is under immense pressure to convert suitable areas into arable land in order to ensure a continued food supply for its people. Accordingly, China is among the top ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Howhot
4.4 / 5 (7) Jan 09, 2012
"The transformation of plant communities on a continental scale within less than a decade can be considered a RAPID ECOSYSTEM RESPONSE to ongoing climate warming,"

I don't think it's just alpine systems we are seeing the response in. In the middle latitudes where plants go dormant during the seasonal winters, there are plant stresses on some varieties with earlier warming temps. I've seen dogwood blooming early and being caught by a ice/snow storm event. Has anyone else seen these odd types of events?


deepsand
3.2 / 5 (13) Jan 09, 2012
Such changes in seasonal events have been observed, recorded, and reported for quite some time now.

Not only are cycles of flora being displaced from their long running norms, but so too the seasonal migrations of a myriad species.

As a bird watcher, the conspicuous changes observed in Pennsylvania over the past decade include:
1) Cedar Waxwings not migrating as far South in Winter as before;
2) More Robins not migrating South in Winter; and,
3) Spring Warbler northward migration happening much earlier.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.