Study reveals that climate change could dramatically alter fragile mountain habitats

January 25, 2017, University of Manchester
An Austrian Alpine scene that would typically be at risk. Credit: Richard Bardgett

Mountain regions of the world are under direct threat from human-induced climate change which could radically alter these fragile habitats, warn an international team of researchers—including an expert from The University of Manchester.

Manchester ecologist Professor Richard Bardgett, who was part of the international team that initiated and designed the study, said: "A clear message from our findings is that could change the functional properties of and potentially create a disequilibrium, or mismatch, between plants and soils in high mountain areas.

"Not only could this have far reaching consequences for biogeochemical cycles but it could also affect mountain biodiversity."

The international study, which spanned seven major of the world, revealed that decreasing —descending a mountainside to warmer levels - provided a 'surrogate' indicator of climate warming and consistently increased the availability of nitrogen from the soil for plant growth, meaning that future climate warming could disrupt the way that fragile mountain ecosystems function.

The researchers also found that plant phosphorus availability was not controlled by elevation in the same way - and as a result, the balance of nitrogen to phosphorus availability in plant leaves was very similar across the seven regions at high elevations, but diverged greatly across the regions at lower elevation. This means that as temperatures become warmer with , the crucial balance between these nutrients that sustain plant growth could be radically altered in higher mountain areas.

They also found that increasing temperature and its consequences for plant nutrition were linked to other changes in the soil, including amounts of organic matter and the make-up of the soil microbial community. These changes were partly independent of any effect of the alpine tree line, meaning that effects of warming on ecosystem properties will occur irrespective of whatever shifts occur in the migration of trees up-slope due to higher temperatures.

Professor Bardgett, based in Mancheser's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, added: "Mountain areas cover a large part of the Earth's land surface and are very vulnerable to climate change.

"Our results, which come from an extensive study of elevation gradients across seven mountain regions of the world - including Japan, British Columbia, New Zealand, Patagonia, Colorado, Australia, and Europe - suggest that future climate warming will substantially alter the way that these sensitive ecosystems function."

Rather than use short-term experiments, the research team used gradients of elevation in each mountain region spanning both above and below the alpine tree line.

Professor Bardgett said that elevation was used as a surrogate for climate warming and this helped to make predictions about the potential effects of climate warming. This is because any particular elevation is expected to experience the same temperature as that of an elevation that is 300 meters lower in 80 years' time due to climate warming. To test for the generality of their findings, the team used elevational gradients in seven distinct mountain regions of the world.

"What we found was remarkably consistent across the different mountain regions of the world. Our results not only suggest that warming could impact the way that plants grow in ecosystems, but also that these changes are linked to effects of warming on soils, especially the cycling of key nutrients that sustain the growth of plants."

Explore further: Testing how species respond to climate change

More information: Elevation alters ecosystem properties across temperate treelines globally, Nature, nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/nature21027

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11 comments

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damsill12
4 / 5 (6) Jan 25, 2017
The world everywhere is feeling the unforgiving wrath change
HeloMenelo
4.4 / 5 (7) Jan 25, 2017
Climate change is acclerating our earth to become the next mars sooner rather than later, we need to change to renewables NOW !
antigoracle
1.4 / 5 (11) Jan 25, 2017
As reality continues to defy their ALTERNATE FACTS, what is a desperate AGW Cult to do, well, stoop to ALTERNATE LIES, of course.
snoosebaum
1.5 / 5 (8) Jan 25, 2017
where i live BC climate change has been increasing ' mountain habitat'' for centuries.
Shootist
1.4 / 5 (10) Jan 25, 2017
just like climate change has done always and forever

if your mountain valley is under a mile deep glacier your local ecology has been dramatically altered.

Thank the Great Maker for Fracking
And praises be, Trump for climate change sanity.
howhot3
4.2 / 5 (6) Jan 26, 2017
Every mountain range in the west without snow caps, yep, it's climate change. That's an AGW FACT MAC. Better look at sea level rise. Weather can change, sealevel rise just sums it up.

humy
4.3 / 5 (6) Jan 26, 2017
just like climate change has done always and forever

except it wasn't partly man made as it is now.
aksdad
1.5 / 5 (8) Jan 26, 2017
Congratulations researchers, your university education really paid off this time. Who knew that climate change changes mountain habitat? Other than virtually every elementary school student who paid attention in class when the teacher covered the ice age, I mean.
Chris_Reeve
Jan 26, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
HeloMenelo
5 / 5 (4) Jan 31, 2017
Congratulations researchers, your university education really paid off this time.

Can't say the same for you graduating out of Bonobo town somewhere in the sticks
novaman
5 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2017
As reality continues to defy their ALTERNATE FACTS, what is a desperate AGW Cult to do, well, stoop to ALTERNATE LIES, of course.

No PROVIDE COUNTLESS of evidence, not brainfart babble thumbsucked opinions as you and your trolls.

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