Study documents ‘clear and statistically significant’ changes
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Researchers working in the Alps of Europe say they’ve measured significant shifts in high elevation plant communities toward species that favor warmer temperatures.
The changes occurred in the short span of just 10 years, suggesting that global warming is already having a substantial impact on alpine plant communities.
“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.”
Scientists from 13 countries pooled their research efforts to report clear and statistically significant evidence of a continent-wide warming effect on mountain plant communities.
The research was published Jan. 8 in Nature Climate Change.
The findings are “clearly significant,” said 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 data was compiled from at 60 summit sites and 867 vegetation samples from 17 mountain areas across Europe, collected in 2001 and then again 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.
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 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.”
Filed under: biodiversity, climate and weather, Environment, global warming, plants and flowers, Summit County news Tagged: | climate change, Dovre Region, Environment, global warming, Norwegian University of Science and Technology