Mountains May Be Climate Change Refuges

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Like the Sound of Music‘s Von Trapp family hiding in the Alps, plants may find refuge from a warming climate in the mountains.

Research in the Swiss Alps suggests diverse mountain habitats could act as stepping stones to allow plants to escape into more hospitable hideaways as their usual homes heat up.

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A large, flat savannah offers little variation in temperature. If the temperature warms up, the whole area warms up.

But Daniel Scherrer and Christian Körner from the University of Basel, Switzerland found a broad spectrum of habitats in the central Swiss Alps after studying an alpine meadow for two seasons. In the rugged mountain landscape, different conditions existed close together.

The plants growing in those varied conditions were adapted to the particular set of temperatures of the micro-climates, the scientists found. The research suggests that these plants could start growing in neighboring habitats as the temperature increases.

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To test this, Scherrer and Körner used a computer model to simulate what would happen if the temperature went up 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. They found that only 3 percent of all temperature conditions disappeared. Some of the cooler habitats shrank or shifted, but pockets remained. This suggests that plants have the opportunity to shift habitats, instead of just dying off.

Preserving mountain habitats is even more new important now in light of this research. A diverse Alpine meadow could save many different habitats, compared to a single habitat in a grassland of equal size.

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“It is known from earlier geological periods that mountains were always important for survival of species during periods of climatic change such as in glacial cycles, because of their ‘habitat diversity,’” concluded Körner.

“Mountains are therefore particularly important areas for the conservation of biodiversity in a given region under climatic change and thus deserve particular protection,” Körner said.

Photo: Different habitats exist close together in the Alps. Wikimedia Commons