Mountain plants face extinction ‘in decades’

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ALPINE plants that thrive in cool conditions are at risk of disappearing from Scottish mountains because of climate change, scientists have warned.

A study, involving biologists from 13 countries, revealed that climate change was having a more serious impact on alpine vegetation than they had expected.

The first cross-Europe survey of changing mountain vegetation has showed that some could vanish within decades.

Michael Gottfried, of the Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments (Gloria) programme, said: “Many cold-loving species are literally running out of mountain. In some of the lower mountains in Europe, we could see alpine meadows disappearing and dwarf shrubs taking over within the next few decades.”

The Gloria team, led from Austria, analysed 867 vegetation samples from 60 different summits across Europe, including in the Cairngorms in Scotland.

They compared results from 2001 and 2008 and found strong evidence to suggest cold-loving plants were being pushed out by species that preferred warmer conditions.

Among species at threat in Europe could be the edelweiss, praised in the song of the same name in The Sound of Music. It is specially adapted to the high-life at altitudes of between 6,500ft to 9,500ft. Its snow white, star-shaped leaves are covered in woolly hairs to protect them from the cold.

“We expected to find a greater number of warm-loving plants at higher altitudes, but we did not expect to find such a significant change in such a short space of time,” said Mr Gottfried.

The same effect was seen from southern countries such as Crete, to northern countries such as Scotland.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change, confirmed that there is a direct link between higher summer temperature and the shift in alpine plant composition. “While regional studies have previously made this link, this is the first time it has been shown on a continental scale,” said Mr Gottfried.

.The phenomenon whereby cold-adapted mountain plant species are gradually replaced by warm-adapted species is dubbed “thermophilisation” by the Gloria researchers.

“Our work shows that climate change affects even the outer edges of the biosphere,” said Georg Grabherr, chairman of the programme. “The thermophilisation of alpine life zones can never be controlled directly. Adaptation strategies are not an option, and we must concentrate on mitigating climate change in order to preserve our biogenetic treasure.”

As long ago as 2003, the charity WWF warned even a temperature rise of 2C could place sensitive mountain plants in the Alps and other ranges at risk.

Stefan Moidle, climate expert at WWF-Austria, said at the time: “Global warming is changing natural habitats, but alpine plants cannot move to higher, cooler locations.”