Sunday, 16 Dec 2018

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Climate change makes mountain tops bloom, for now

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Health Desk: 05 April 2018: Rocky mountain summits are tough places for life to survive with the harsh weather conditions and lower oxygen levels seen at elevation. But increasingly, wildflowers and other plant species are moving up and moving in on the tops of mountains where they haven't been seen before.

A new study published today in the journal Nature looked at 302 peaks from across Europe and found that 87 percent of them were being colonized by plants benefiting from milder weather conditions at the top.

"We found that plant species richness has increased strongly over the past 145 years on the vast majority of Europe’s summits and that the increase has accelerated in the most recent years," reads the paper from an international team of researchers.

The researchers analyzed data to find that the number of plant species moving in on the summits between 2007 and 2016 is five times more than the amount seen half a century earlier, between 1957 and 1966. The findings are consistent with an increase in temperatures that has taken place in recent years and the authors note that other factors like pollution or humans on mountains do not explain the changes.

While it might seem nice to have a more varied abundance of wildflowers and plants on mountain peaks, there is a danger that we will have to eventually pay for this "bloom boom" later.

"As more species become established at high-elevation sites, local extinctions will be likely to result from competitive replacement of slow-growing, stress-tolerant alpine species by more vigorous generalists that benefit from warming," explain the authors.

They caution that the process of plants being pushed out will take some time as the new residents move in and build bigger populations.

"Local extinctions should hence follow colonization with a time-lag. Consequently, accelerating plant species richness increases are expected to be a transient phenomenon that hides the accumulation of a so-called extinction debt."

In other words, as the world warms and species move up the mountain in search of the colder climes they prefer, the plants currently living at summits will be crowded out and eventually disappear since there's no way for them to climb higher themselves.