Alpine provides baseline for climate change study 

Changing vegetation to provide insight into possible impacts of warming

Although the basic scientific theory of global warming and climate change is almost universally acknowledged, given the growing body of evidence to support it, there is very little research into what specific effects changing temperatures and climates will have on biodiversity.

Hoping to fill in some of those gaps, scientists in 18 countries are currently cataloguing and monitoring high alpine plant species at different altitudes and temperatures to gain a better understanding of what’s there, and what kinds of changes happen over time. The name of the project is GLORIA, which stands for Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine environments, and the first studies got underway in 2001.

Kristina Swerhun, a Masters of Science student at the University of Victoria, is helping to coordinate the Canadian study, which got underway this year. Her study area includes mountain peaks in the Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Reserve on Vancouver Island and in Garibaldi Park outside of her sometimes hometown of Whistler.

Of the main reasons that GLORIA is focusing on alpine areas, says Swerhun, is that the peak areas of the park are almost completely unspoiled by human activity.

“Because there are not a lot of people up there walking around, it’s one of the few places where we can see what’s actually happening free of interference, and we’ll have data from similar alpine areas on five continents where we’ll be able to get a global picture of what’s there and what changes over time,” she said.

As well as being remote, the high alpine is home to several species of plants and lichen that are specific to different altitudes and climate, or are entirely endemic to the alpine. That, and the absence of trees, makes it easier to spot and record changes over time.

Each study area focuses on the peak of a mountain and all of the area surrounding the highest point within 10 metres of elevation. Every single species within that area is catalogued and will be compared with other mountains of a similar height with similar winter temperatures.

“It’s designed to be a long term project, so we can go back and take a detailed look at the area and see if climate change is increasing or decreasing biodiversity and what changes are taking place,” said Swerhun. “We’ll go back every five years to see how species in a given area are changing. Species may retreat to cooler temperatures and might go upwards or move to different aspects of the mountain, and in some cases there might be a community effect if different plants work well together, or the opposite if one species pushes out another.”

While the alpine is a unique type of environment, once enough data is collected Swerhun says they will be able to use their research to predict changes to other ecosystems as a result of global warming.

“Anything that happens in the alpine is probably happening at lower elevations as well,” said Swerhun. “The idea is to see if there’s a loss of biodiversity or if there are changes to the way ecosystems are functioning, and apply what we’ve learned (from the alpine) to other ecosystems around the world.

Studying four sites to that level of detail has taken Swerhun the better part of two months, and she brought in outside expertise to help with the biodiversity inventory. Bob Brett, who is putting together a biodiversity inventory for all of Whistler was one of the researchers, and will include the results of Swerhun’s research in his own research.

As well, Swerhun thanks Hans Roemer, Amber Paulson, Ben Tanasichuk, Adam Autio, and Arthur DeJong and Kathy Jenkins of Whistler-Blackcomb for their assistance, as well as the Whistler Naturalists and the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment for their support.

Other countries involved in the study include Greece, France, Georgia, Italy, Norway, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, U.S., Peru, China, Chile, Australia and New Zealand.

Funding for the Canadian study was made available by the provincial Ministry of the Environment, the RMOW and Alpine Club of Canada.

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