Nav: Home

Study reveals that climate change could dramatically alter fragile mountain habitats

January 25, 2017

Mountain regions of the world are under direct threat from human-induced climate change which could radically alter these fragile habitats, warn an international team of researchers - including an expert from The University of Manchester.

Manchester ecologist Professor Richard Bardgett, who was part of the international team that initiated and designed the study, said: "A clear message from our findings is that climate warming could change the functional properties of mountain ecosystems and potentially create a disequilibrium, or mismatch, between plants and soils in high mountain areas.

"Not only could this have far reaching consequences for biogeochemical cycles but it could also affect mountain biodiversity."

The international study, which spanned seven major mountain regions of the world, revealed that decreasing elevation - descending a mountainside to warmer levels - provided a 'surrogate' indicator of climate warming and consistently increased the availability of nitrogen from the soil for plant growth, meaning that future climate warming could disrupt the way that fragile mountain ecosystems function.

The researchers also found that plant phosphorus availability was not controlled by elevation in the same way - and as a result, the balance of nitrogen to phosphorus availability in plant leaves was very similar across the seven regions at high elevations, but diverged greatly across the regions at lower elevation. This means that as temperatures become warmer with climate change, the crucial balance between these nutrients that sustain plant growth could be radically altered in higher mountain areas.

They also found that increasing temperature and its consequences for plant nutrition were linked to other changes in the soil, including amounts of organic matter and the make-up of the soil microbial community. These changes were partly independent of any effect of the alpine tree line, meaning that effects of warming on ecosystem properties will occur irrespective of whatever shifts occur in the migration of trees up-slope due to higher temperatures.

Professor Bardgett, based in Mancheser's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, added: "Mountain areas cover a large part of the Earth's land surface and are very vulnerable to climate change.

"Our results, which come from an extensive study of elevation gradients across seven mountain regions of the world - including Japan, British Columbia, New Zealand, Patagonia, Colorado, Australia, and Europe - suggest that future climate warming will substantially alter the way that these sensitive ecosystems function."

Rather than use short-term experiments, the research team used gradients of elevation in each mountain region spanning both above and below the alpine tree line.

Professor Bardgett said that elevation was used as a surrogate for climate warming and this helped to make predictions about the potential effects of climate warming. This is because any particular elevation is expected to experience the same temperature as that of an elevation that is 300 meters lower in 80 years' time due to climate warming. To test for the generality of their findings, the team used elevational gradients in seven distinct mountain regions of the world.

"What we found was remarkably consistent across the different mountain regions of the world. Our results not only suggest that warming could impact the way that plants grow in mountain ecosystems, but also that these changes are linked to effects of warming on soils, especially the cycling of key nutrients that sustain the growth of plants."
-end-
The findings are published in the prestigious international journal Nature in a paper entitled 'Elevation alters ecosystem properties across temperate tree lines globally'. The study was coordinated by SLU [Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences] postdoctoral researcher Jordan Mayor and Professor David Wardle - both based in the university's Department of Forest Ecology and Management - and coauthored by researchers in nine other institutions including the Universities of Manchester, Vermont, Innsbruck, and Grenoble.

University of Manchester

Related Climate Change Articles:

A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.
Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).
Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.
Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.
Could climate change cause infertility?
A number of plant and animal species could find it increasingly difficult to reproduce if climate change worsens and global temperatures become more extreme -- a stark warning highlighted by new scientific research.
Predicting climate change
Thomas Crowther, ETH Zurich identifies long-disappeared forests available for restoration across the world.
Historical climate important for soil responses to future climate change
Researchers at Lund University in Sweden, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Amsterdam, examined how 18 years of drought affect the billions of vital bacteria that are hidden in the soil beneath our feet.
Can forests save us from climate change?
Additional climate benefits through sustainable forest management will be modest and local rather than global.
From crystals to climate: 'Gold standard' timeline links flood basalts to climate change
Princeton geologists used tiny zircon crystals found in volcanic ash to rewrite the timeline for the eruptions of the Columbia River flood basalts, a series of massive lava flows that coincided with an ancient global warming period 16 million years ago.
Think pink for a better view of climate change
A new study says pink noise may be the key to separating out natural climate variability from climate change that is influenced by human activity.
More Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

In & Out Of Love
We think of love as a mysterious, unknowable force. Something that happens to us. But what if we could control it? This hour, TED speakers on whether we can decide to fall in — and out of — love. Guests include writer Mandy Len Catron, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, musician Dessa, One Love CEO Katie Hood, and psychologist Guy Winch.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#543 Give a Nerd a Gift
Yup, you guessed it... it's Science for the People's annual holiday episode that helps you figure out what sciency books and gifts to get that special nerd on your list. Or maybe you're looking to build up your reading list for the holiday break and a geeky Christmas sweater to wear to an upcoming party. Returning are pop-science power-readers John Dupuis and Joanne Manaster to dish on the best science books they read this past year. And Rachelle Saunders and Bethany Brookshire squee in delight over some truly delightful science-themed non-book objects for those whose bookshelves are already full. Since...
Now Playing: Radiolab

An Announcement from Radiolab