Quantcast

Rise in Mountain Plants Linked to Climate Change

Climate
On the summit of Piz Linard in the Swiss Alps, where botanists recently identified 16 plant species. In 1835 only one was found. Hansueli Rhyner, SLF, Switzerland

By Tim Radford

Mountain plants are on the rise. The number of species on the highest European mountains has multiplied fivefold.

Data gathered over 145 years from 302 peaks shows that the count of wild plants that have colonized the highest zones has increased five times faster than during a comparable decade 50 years ago.


This may not, in the long run, be good news. The enriching of the high life is unequivocally linked to global warming: changes in precipitation, or in nutrient supplies, are not enough to account for the growth in alpine colonists.

More than 50 scientists from Denmark, Norway, Germany, France, Austria, the UK, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Spain and Slovakia reported in the journal Nature that such change has "potentially far-reaching consequences not only for biodiversity, but also for ecosystem functioning and services."

The finding was possible because European botanists and biologists began assembling data on the plant growth at the highest sites in the 1870s and have maintained their databases ever since.

The scientists found that between 1957 and 1966, the average number of species on the 300 peaks increased by 1.1 on average. Between 2007-2016, on average 5.5 species made it to the top.

The study does not, so far, suggest that new species have displaced the original residents. But plants adapted to the conditions on the highest peaks may run out of options as the mountains themselves get warmer.

"Some of the species which have adapted to the cold and rocky conditions on mountain summits will probably disappear in the long term. They have nowhere else to go, and they can't develop rapidly enough to be able to compete with the new arrivals, which are taller and more competitive under warmer climates," said Manuel Steinbauer, who led the research while at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, but who is now at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany.

"The species that move upwards often come from grassland above the tree line. But they can't survive everywhere on the mountain top, so it's not certain that they will be a threat to all the existing species up there. The local soil conditions and micro-climates also play a role."

Increasingly Vulnerable

Mountains are natural laboratories, and researchers have been monitoring high altitude change for decades. Conservationists and biologists have repeatedly warned that mountain ecosystems are more vulnerable to climate change.

They have measured the rate at which plants, birds and insects have gained in altitude in the Swiss Alps and in the Andes. They have observed change in the mix of alpine flowers and even detected diminution in the body size of alpine chamois, with increasing temperature.

So change at the highest level comes as no great surprise. But as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise in response to ever greater use of fossil fuels, and as global average temperatures increase, species at the extremes could increasingly be at risk.

"Even though the existing species on mountain tops are not acutely endangered, the strong acceleration in the effects of global warming on plant communities on the peaks does give cause for concern, as we expect far stronger climate change toward 2100," explained Jens-Christian Svenning at Aarhus University, another of the authors.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Wesley Martinez Da Costa / EyeEm / Getty Images

By David R. Montgomery

Would it sound too good to be true if I was to say that there was a simple, profitable and underused agricultural method to help feed everybody, cool the planet, and revitalize rural America? I used to think so, until I started visiting farmers who are restoring fertility to their land, stashing a lot of carbon in their soil, and returning healthy profitability to family farms. Now I've come to see how restoring soil health would prove as good for farmers and rural economies as it would for the environment.

Read More Show Less
skaman306 / Moment / Getty Images

By Jillian Kubala, MS, RD

Radish (Raphanus sativus) is a cruciferous vegetable that originated in Asia and Europe (1Trusted Source).

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Tinnakorn Jorruang / iStock / Getty Images

By Dan Nosowitz

The budding research on cannabidiol, or CBD, attracts a great deal of interest in the agricultural field.

Read More Show Less
Oksana Khodakovskaia / iStock / Getty Images

By Jillian Kubala, MS, RD

The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) is a tree native to China that's prized for its sweet, citrus-like fruit.

Read More Show Less

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released new numbers that show vaping-related lung illnesses are continuing to grow across the country, as the number of fatalities has climbed to 33 and hospitalizations have reached 1,479 cases, according to a CDC update.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
During the summer, the Arctic tundra is usually a thriving habitat for mammals such as the Arctic fox. Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Reports of extreme snowfall in the Arctic might seem encouraging, given that the region is rapidly warming due to human-driven climate change. According to a new study, however, the snow could actually pose a major threat to the normal reproductive cycles of Arctic wildlife.

Read More Show Less
Vegan rice and garbanzo beans meals. Ella Olsson / Pexels

By Alina Petre, MS, RD (CA)

One common concern about vegan diets is whether they provide your body with all the vitamins and minerals it needs.

Many claim that a whole-food, plant-based diet easily meets all the daily nutrient requirements.

Read More Show Less
A fracking well looms over a residential area of Liberty, Colorado on Aug. 19. WildEarth Guardians / Flickr

A new multiyear study found that people living or working within 2,000 feet, or nearly half a mile, of a hydraulic fracturing (fracking) drill site may be at a heightened risk of exposure to benzene and other toxic chemicals, according to research released Thursday by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE)

Read More Show Less