Research suggests lonely plants on mountaintops are getting company, thanks to climate change

A researcher at the summit of the 11,120-foot Piz Linard in the Swiss Alps. Modern-day botanists found 16 species. In 1835, only one was found. Hansueli Rhyner, SLF, Switzerland

Imagine plants shivering at the top of a mountain in Europe, the few hardy individuals that can endure living in such a cold, forbidding place. They’ve gripped the rocky soil for ages, while humans have led their busy lives below.

Now, those plants are getting company. Others are advancing up the mountain, thanks to the global warming produced by those humans down in the valley, according to a new study.

The study, published this week in the journal Nature, found that over the past 10 years, the number of plant species on European mountaintops has increased five times more than during the period from 1957 to 1966, Aarhus University said in a statement.

“This acceleration is strikingly synchronized with accelerated global warming,” the study said.

The research was conducted with the help of a large international research team from 11 European countries that surveyed 302 European mountain peaks, the university said.

The study did not address whether the advancing species had displaced existing species, but researchers expressed concern.

“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,” the main author of the study, Manuel Steinbauer, said in the statement.

Steinbauer worked on the study while at the Department of Bioscience at Aarhus University. He is now a professor at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg.

The new study builds on previous research that has found changes in mountain vegetation due to climate change.

The researchers not only surveyed mountaintops but delved into 150 years of records kept by mountaineering botanists around Europe, the university said. The study could only be done in Europe because that’s the only place records go back that far.

Researcher Sonja Wipf on the 9,300-foot Piz Murter in Switzerland. Hans Lozza, Swiss National Park

At least one of those botanists was prescient about the need to collect the data.

“In order to create a solid foundation for the future, I investigated numerous mountain peaks in detail,” Swiss professor Josias Braun-Blanquet wrote in 1913, the university said. “On the basis of a comprehensive description of locations, it will not be difficult to verify my species lists, and an increase or decrease of species richness in the future will be possible to detect with high certainty.”

Researcher Sonja Wipf of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL in Davos, Switzerland, said, “The early botanists were driven by a deep inherent interest to understand the ecology and distribution of alpine species, and we are driven by the same interest, in a time of increasing human impact and accelerating change.”

“In our research, it became very clear that we were standing on the shoulders of giants. Maybe we will become little giants as well with time — we certainly hope that future generations may find our legacy equally useful as we did our predecessors’,” she said in a blog post.

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