Naturespeak 

Alpine biodiversity and climate change

By Kristina Swerhun

The environmental condition of our planet is rapidly being altered due to a combination of land-use changes, diminished air and water quality, and climate warming. The pace of these changes raises concern about losses in biodiversity.

Biodiversity loss is not just the extinction of species, but also includes any change in the mix of species that affect ecosystem goods and services.

Ecosystem goods are properties that have direct market value, and include: food, construction materials, medicines, wild types for domestic plant and animal breeding, and of course tourism and recreation.

Ecosystem services support life on Earth in other ways and include maintaining hydrologic cycles, regulating climate, cleansing air and water, maintaining atmospheric composition, pollination, soil formation and storing and cycling of nutrients. Simply put, changes in Earth’s biodiversity can affect how well ecosystems work to provide the goods and services essential to humanity.

Through ongoing research and monitoring, researchers have begun ecological risk assessments that are designed to predict the consequence of impacts on ecosystems. With this information t he goal is to develop adaptive management strategies to lessen negative impacts.

A snag in the plan is that theoretical work on the stability of ecosystems over time has outpaced experimental work. This recognition shows that we need long-term experiments to validate predictions on the long-term ecological effects of climate change and other disturbances.

High mountain ecosystems are ideal areas to conduct long-term experiments since they occur at all latitudes around the globe and are the only ecosystem relatively unaffected by human influence. They are also responsive to small changes in temperature and precipitation patterns because of their characteristically steep slopes and large relief. In addition, in the central Alps it has already been shown that the range of high alpine plant species is contracting as a result of prolonged climate warming.   This raises concerns that the contraction of species ranges could become the major threat to biodiversity in high mountains.

The lack of standardized long-term ecological experiments within high mountain ecosystems provided the impetus for developing a worldwide observation network designed to monitor the long-term effect of changing climates on the vegetation of alpine peaks. Known as “The Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine environments” (GLORIA), it consists of a global network of monitoring sites (known as target regions) coordinated by the University of Vienna Institute of Ecology and Conservation Biology (www.gloria.ac.at). Although 45 target regions now exist within the continents of Europe, Asia, Australia, North America and South America, prior to 2003, no sites existed within North America.   This past summer as part of my Masters project I established the first Canadian GLORIA target regions here in Whistler and on Vancouver Island.

Here in Whistler we inventoried four peaks in Garibaldi Provincial Park on the east side of the Blackcomb Glacier. The highest peak was The Spearhead, which had a surprising number of plant species considering it looks virtually barren from far away. I will be giving a talk about the results of my study as part of the Whistler Naturalists speaker’s series on April 19 th .

There will also be a talk by PhD student Paul Spence about the science of climate change and global warming. He has access to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (set to be released this summer) and will include an overview of what it says and why it matters.   Hope to see you there.

Upcoming Events:

The Science of Climate Change and Whistler’s role in international climate research, at MY Millennium Place, Thursday, April 19, 7:30 p.m.

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