Edelweiss – “blossom of snow may you bloom and glow forever” – The Sound of Music. Across many European high mountain ranges the typical flowery alpine meadows could disappear within the next few decades, a new study warns. [Picture [under CC-BY-SA license] by Austrian nature photographer Friedrich Böhringer.]
A research group with ecologists and other scientists from 13 different countries have conducted field studies throughout the European mountain ranges. The size of the study is noteworthy. Sampling took place over several years and across the continent, in 17 different mountain areas.
According to a news release by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) they have found evidence of significantly altering alpine vegetation as a consequence of climate warming – as the research group will report in their upcoming publication in Nature Climate Change [planned online ahead of print for 8 January 2012, but no trace yet].
When the data for the entire continent is pooled it shows a statistically significant vegetation shift over a warming period of just 7 years, between 2001 and 2008, the Norwegians report. As a general response, plant species try to move uphill, to stay within their optimum temperature ranges.
“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,” says Ottar Michelsen of NTNU.
The European climate mountain study is part of a global investigation [Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments – GLORIA], led by the University of Vienna, Austria, which investigates vegetation responses to warming on 90 mountain sites on 5 continents.
Fast forwarding climate trends across the mountain ranges
Globally the last decade was the warmest on record. Locally in Europe* the warming has been considerably faster than the world average, up to 0.42 degrees Celsius between 2000-2010 in low-lying areas like the Netherlands.
[*) A seperate Nature Climate Change publication by France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) this week states European average warming between 1990 and 2008 is as high as 1 degree Celsius(!)]
In many high mountain areas, much like high-latitude regions close to the Arctic, warming has been even further sped up due to albedo feedbacks, as the extent of the annual snow cover is decreasing and more solar energy is absorbed by underlying rocks and dark soils. [This is one of the main reasons why these much-disputed Himalayan glaciers are indeed melting fast.]
Shifting mountain vegetation could be the canary in the coalmine for vegetation zones worldwide. What scientists currently witness happening at high altitudes is a fast-forward animation of huge vegetation shifts across the plains of our planet over the course of this century – as an estimated 40 percent of biomes will flip.
Ironically it could be the same Eurasian west-east mountain ranges, like the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Caucasus and the Himalayas, which may prove a climatic stumbling block that would prevent successful northward species migrations – further worsening climate-induced biodiversity loss predictions.
© Rolf Schuttenhelm | www.bitsofscience.org