Continent-wide response of mountain vegetation to climate change

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Abstract

Climate impact studies have indicated ecological fingerprints of recent global warming across a wide range of habitats1,2. Although these studies have shown responses from various local case studies, a coherent large-scale account on temperature-driven changes of biotic communities has been lacking3,4. Here we use 867 vegetation samples above the treeline from 60 summit sites in all major European mountain systems to show that ongoing climate change gradually transforms mountain plant communities. We provide evidence that the more cold-adapted species decline and the more warm-adapted species increase, a process described here as thermophilization. At the scale of individual mountains this general trend may not be apparent, but at the larger, continental scale we observed a significantly higher abundance of thermophilic species in 2008, compared with 2001. Thermophilization of mountain plant communities mirrors the degree of recent warming and is more pronounced in areas where the temperature increase has been higher. In view of the projected climate change5,6 the observed transformation suggests a progressive decline of cold mountain habitats and their biota.

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Figure 1: Plant species distribution and vegetation patterns in mountains.
Figure 2: The thermophilization indicator D is significantly positive on the European level.
Figure 3: The thermophilization indicator D of mountain regions is correlated with temperature change.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge the E-OBS dataset from the EU-FP6 project ENSEMBLES (http://ensembles-eu.metoffice.com) and the data providers in the ECA &D project (http://eca.knmi.nl). We thank the European Topic Centre on Biological Diversity for stimulating discussions, G-R. Walther, S. Dullinger, K. Green and T. Stuessy for internal reviewing, C. Klettner for data compilation, S. Laimer for project administration, R. Töchterle for help with Fig. 3 and approximately 80 co-workers for performing field recording. The study was financed by the European Commission, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the University of Vienna, the MAVA foundation (Switzerland) and many other national authorities of the partner groups.

Author information

G.G., H.P. and M.G. coordinated the monitoring program, performed field work and wrote the text. M.G. and H.P. conceived the study and compiled data, and M.G. and A.F. performed the statistical analyses. All other authors organized and performed field work as well as data compilation, and edited the manuscript.

Correspondence to Harald Pauli.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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