Mountain Plants Face Extinction as Shrinking Glaciers Force Them to Compete for Space
With glaciers melting at alarming and unprecedented rates, plants that grow in mountain climates are faced with the threat of extinction, a new study has found. Researchers are worried that the extinction of such flora could significantly damage mountain ecosystems and reduce the overall biodiversity of mountainous ranges.
The plants in question, collectively known as alpine flora, grow at altitudes of about 3,000 meters, where the snow-line of a mountain begins.
Rooted in global warming, the threat to the extinction of alpine flora appears to be two-fold. First, due to melting — and eventually disappearing — glaciers, the plants are “forced higher and higher up the mountain and eventually left with nowhere to grow,” Robert Baxter, an associate professor of plant ecology at Durham University, U.K., who was not involved in the study, explains for The Conversation.
Added to that, rising temperatures are also forcing plants from lower altitudes upwards into the alpine zone, which is becoming closer to the climate conditions they thrive in. But, this is “adding to the pressure on existing alpine specialists and ultimately favoring fewer, more competitive plants,” forcing others to perish in the “constant battle for space, light, water, and nutrients,” Baxter explains.
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Published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, the study analyzed data from the Italian Alps and found that one-fifth of alpine plant species on four glaciers in the region are likely to become locally extinct once the glaciers vanish from mountains. As many alpine species are endemic to the specific areas where they evolved to withstand harsh climates, some aren’t found anywhere else in the world — indicating their complete extinction could be underway, too.
The researchers say their findings would apply to alpine species in mountain ecosystems across the world. “I think we can be relatively confident that our results can be extended to elsewhere in the Alps and other mountain ecosystems, like the Himalayas, the Karakoram, and the Andes,” Gianalberto Losapio, Ph.D., a biologist from Stanford University, in the U.S., who led the study, told The Guardian.
The researchers noted that given how integral a part of fragile mountain ecosystems alpine plants are, their disappearance could, in turn, trigger other local extinctions. “Plants are the primary producers at the basis of the food web that sustains our lives and economies,” Losapio noted. He added that “[alpine plants] are not only our food but fuel for all of the ecosystem — the consumers, predators, parasites, herbivores, and pollinators.”
However, it may not be too late to salvage the ecosystems. Despite the alpine species being on an “escalator to extinction,” according to Losapio. “Our study … may help conservationists, natural park managers and practitioners to mitigate and anticipate the consequences of anthropogenic impact on Earth’s ecosystems,” he adds.