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Alpine ecosystems are thrown off balance by climate change

A new study led by the University of Manchester has revealed the significant repercussions of climate change on the Alps’ biodiversity and ecosystem functions, spotlighting the intertwined effects of diminishing snow cover and the upward shift of vegetation patterns, such as the proliferation of dwarf-shrubs including heather. 

Timing of critical alpine ecosystem functions

Mountainous regions globally are experiencing a warming rate surpassing that of adjacent lowlands, precipitating a stark reduction in snow cover and encouraging the upward shift of certain vegetation types. 

The experts discovered that these environmental alterations are disrupting the timing of critical alpine ecosystem functions performed by plant and soil microorganism activities, which are vital for maintaining nutrient balance and biodiversity in these extreme habitats.

“Our paper reveals how important the timing of many plant and soil processes are in seasonal ecosystems. People may be familiar with mismatches between plant flowering and the emergence of pollinators caused by climate change,” said lead author Arthur Broadbent, an expert in the functioning of mountain  ecosystems at Manchester. 

Fascinating seasonal dynamics

“In our study, we have demonstrated that plant and soil processes show fascinating seasonal dynamics, and that the timing of these processes can also be disrupted by climate change. The high mountains are like a canary in the coalmine because they are warming much faster than the global average. That makes our findings particularly alarming.”

Typically, mountain ecosystems undergo substantial nutrient exchanges between plants and soil microbes, influenced by seasonal dynamics. The onset of spring and subsequent snowmelt initiates a competition for nutrients between plants and soil microbes, facilitating a nutrient shift from soil to flora. This dynamic reverses in autumn as plants die, recycling nutrients back to the soil. 

Altering the balance of alpine ecosystems

Snow serves a critical insulating role across alpine ecosystems during the winter, enabling soil microbes to function and plants to withstand the frigid temperatures. However, climate projections suggest a dramatic reduction in snow cover by the end of the century, alongside significantly earlier snowmelts, altering this delicate balance.

“Declining winter snow cover is one of the most obvious and pronounced impacts of climate change in the Alps. Its effects on the functioning and biodiversity of alpine ecosystems are a major concern for people living in Alpine regions and beyond,” explained co-author Michael Bahn, an ecologist at the University of Innsbruck.

Potential long-term consequences

“Our work demonstrates how the combination of different facets of climate change can severely disrupt below-ground ecological processes that underpin plant growth in alpine ecosystems, with potential long-term consequences for their biodiversity and functioning,” added senior author Richard Bardgett, a professor of ecology at Manchester.

The study, published in the journal Global Change Biology, sheds light on the complexity of ecosystem responses to the multifaceted impacts of climate change. It underscores the challenge scientists face in predicting these effects due to the intricate interplay between direct and indirect climate change factors.

The research also highlights the urgent need for integrated approaches to understand and mitigate the consequences of climate change on alpine ecosystems and their biodiversity.


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