Mountain Messengers | EcoCenter: Land | Smithsonian
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(Cheryl Carlin)

Mountain Messengers

Scientists scale peaks and study plants to understand the impact of warming

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When a helicopter dropped Stephen Talbot into a remote corner of Alaska's Selawik National Wildlife Refuge late last June, he got straight to work. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife botanist was racing against time to inventory plant species on four peaks in the Hockley Hills. He had a month to complete his fieldwork. How long the plants have is anybody's guess.

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As temperatures rise around the world, the fragile, cold-loving alpine plants clinging to peaks from the Alps to the Andes are increasingly at risk. These slow-growing perennials are perfectly adapted to their frigid, wind-blasted summits. Turn up the heat, and plants may slowly creep upslope to cooler elevations, if they exist. Ratchet it up too fast or too far, and the plants will go extinct.

Scientists such as Talbot are scaling peaks and studying plants worldwide to understand the impact of warming on mountain ecosystems. On mountaintops the average temperature , like that of the Arctic and Antarctic, is rising at twice the rate of the global average. That means that high altitude —and high latitude—regions are responding faster and sooner to climate change.

Harald Pauli, a botanist at the University of Vienna in Austria, began studying this phenomenon in the European Alps in the early 90s. Using historical data from as far back as 1835, Pauli and colleagues discovered that warming temperatures have chased plants to higher elevations at a rate of about a foot per year. This finding, along with the lack of detailed information on the distributions of species in alpine environments, led Pauli and others to launch the Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments (GLORIA) in 2001.

The beauty of GLORIA lies in its standardized, low-cost, low-tech process, says Dan Fagre, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist who is based in Glacier National Park and established the first North American GLORIA study site there in 2003. By collecting specific data, revisiting peaks every five years and plugging the results into a central database, scientists around the world can now compare notes.

New sites are added every year, says Pauli, but the results take time. The seminal site, established by Pauli in 1994 on Mount Schrankogel in the Austrian Alps, is just now generating data. In a paper published in Global Change Biology in January 2007, Pauli and colleagues documented an 11 percent increase in the past 10 years in the number of species present, called species richness. More plants are a good thing, right? Not necessarily, according to Pauli.

It turns out that the new species were alpine grassland plants that moved upslope. At the same time, all of the extreme nival species, those that live scattered among rocks and snow at the highest elevations, declined.

"It was a surprising signal that obviously the ongoing climate warming could be detrimental to very cold-adept species," Pauli says. "[The increased species richness] is the beginning of a process, which will finally, we expect, result in the shrinkage of alpine life zones. As it progresses, species will no longer survive."

Why should the world care about the disappearance of a few wildflowers on remote mountaintops? In Europe, the alpine ecosystem covers only 3 percent of the landmass but is home to almost 20 percent of all native plant species. An enormous number of species would be affected.

"Loss is loss. Forever," Pauli says. "You could preserve the seeds in seed banks, but it's never the same. You cannot preserve entire ecosystems."

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