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Alpine plants are threatened by glacier retreat

An unprecedented rate of glacier retreat threatens the future of Alpine plants. While these plants will initially benefit and diversify as more land is cleared, the researchers found that many species will soon become endangered.

“Our results indicate that plant diversity will ultimately decrease once the glaciers disappear – and up to 22% of the species we analyzed may locally disappear or even go extinct once the glaciers are gone,” said study lead author Dr. Gianalberto Losapio of Stanford University.

“We show that ‘not all species are equal before global warming’ and that there are some species benefiting from global warming, the so-called ‘winners,’ while others – ‘the losers’ – will suffer.”

Glacier retreat exposes new areas for plants to grow, but also changes the habitability of ecosystems downstream. Dr. Losapio and his team reconstructed the positions of four glaciers in the Italian Alps, and then estimated the age of downstream communities.

This information, along with survey data on 117 Alpine plant species, was integrated into a computer model to study how plant distribution has changed over the past five millennia. The model also accounted for local environmental conditions and forecasted the effects of future glacier retreat.

The results of the analysis indicated that there were shifts in the interactions within plant communities, and competitive species had ultimately become more prevalent. Even though some cooperative species were the first to colonize the communities, their populations had declined within only 100 years.

While the findings do not explore the potential role of evolution, it is unlikely that Alpine plants will have time to adapt to their new conditions at the current rate of glacier retreat.

“Plants are the primary producers at the basis of the food web that sustains our lives and economies, and biodiversity is key to healthy ecosystems – biodiversity also represents an inestimable cultural value that needs to be properly supported,” said Dr. Losapio. 

“Our study, with its results and innovative approach, may help conservationists, natural park managers and practitioners to mitigate and anticipate the consequences of anthropogenic impact on Earth’s ecosystems.”

The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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