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High Mountain Ecosystems Under Climate Change  

Harald Pauli and Stephan R.P. Halloy

High mountains (i.e., mountains that reach above the climatic treeline) are regions where many interests converge. Their treeless alpine landscapes and ecosystems are key areas for biodiversity, they act as water sources and reservoirs, and they are cultural and religious icons. Yet, mountain environments are threatened by global stressors such as land use impacts and anthropogenic climate change, including associated species redistributions and invasions. High mountains are warming faster than lower elevations. The number of frost days is declining, glaciers are retreating, and snow is remaining for shorter periods, while CO2 partial pressure is increasing. All of these factors affect the way in which ecosystems prosper or degrade. Thanks to the compression of thermal belts and to topographic ruggedness that favors habitat heterogeneity, mountains have a high diversity of biotic communities and species richness at the landscape level. In tropical to temperature regions, high mountains are biogeographically much like islands. With small habitat areas, species tend to be distributed patchily, with populations evolving independently from those on other isolated summits. Although high mountain areas strongly differ in size, geological age, bedrock, glacial history, solar radiation, precipitation patterns, wind exposure, length of growing season, and biotic features, they are all governed by low-temperature conditions. Combined with their distribution over all climate zones on Earth, mountain habitats and their biota, therefore, represent an excellent natural indicator system for tracing the ecological impacts of global climate change. As temperatures rise, plants and animals migrate upward (and poleward). Plant and animal populations on small, isolated mountains have nowhere to go if climates warm and push them upslope. On the other hand, habitat heterogeneity may buffer against biodiversity losses by providing a multitude of potential refugia for species which become increasingly maladapted to their present habitats. Global-scale approaches to monitor climate and biotic change in high mountains as well as modeling and experimental studies are helping explain the nature of these changes. Such studies have found that species from lower elevations are colonizing habitats on mountain summits at an accelerating pace, with five times faster rates than half a century ago. Further, repeated in situ surveys in permanent plots showed a widespread transformation of alpine plant community assemblages toward more warmth-demanding and/or less cold-adapted species. Concurrently to widespread increases in overall species richness, high-elevation plant species have declined in abundance and frequency. Strongly cold-adapted plant species may directly suffer from warmer and longer growing seasons through weak abilities to adjust respiration rates to warmer conditions. Combined effects of warming and decreasing water availability will amplify detrimental effects of climatic stresses on alpine biota. Many of the dwarf and slow-growing species, however, will be affected when taller and faster-growing species from lower elevations invade and prosper with warming in alpine environments and, thus, threaten to outcompete locally established species. Warming conditions will also encourage land use changes and upward movement of agriculture, while loss of snow is a loss to ski fields and scenic tourism.


Long-Term Surface Air Temperature Trends Over Mainland China  

Guoyu Ren, Guoli Tang, and Kangmin Wen

Based on a dataset of national reference and basic stations, which have been quality controlled and inhomogeneity processed, updated surface air temperature (SAT) series of the past 67 (1951–2017) and 113 (1905–2017) years for mainland China are constructed and analyzed. The new temperature series show significant warming trends of 0.24°C/10yr and 0.09°C/10yr respectively for the two periods. The rapid regional warming generally begins from the mid-1980s, about a decade later than the northern hemisphere average SAT change. Warming during the period of 1951–2017 is larger and more significant in the northeast, north, northwest and the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, and the most significant SAT increase usually occurs in winter and spring except for the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau where winter and autumn undergo the largest warming. The slowdown of the warming can be clearly detected after 1998, especially for autumn and winter. The effect of urbanization on trends of the region averaged annual and seasonal mean SAT as calculated from the national reference and basic stations has not been adjusted, despite it being generally large and significant. In north China, the increasing trend of annual mean SAT induced by urbanization for the national stations is 0.10°C/10yr for the period 1961–2015, accounting for at least 31% of the overall annual mean warming. The contribution of urbanization to the overall warming of the past half century in Mainland China has also been summarized and discussed referring to the previous studies.


Plant Phenology of the European Alps  

Helfried Scheifinger

Phenology is the study of the seasonal timing of life cycle events. The Belgian botanist Charles Morren introduced the term in 1853, which is a combination of two Greek words, φαίνω, which means to show, to bring to light, make to appear, and λόγος, which means study, discourse, or reasoning. The global change discussion has stimulated phenological research, which as a consequence greatly advanced as science and evolved to one of the main climate impact indicators. Many of the earliest systematic efforts to collect phenological observations took place in countries sharing the Alps, most of which are still operating phenological networks. These phenological data sets are generally freely available to researchers, and numerous essential contributions to the topic of phenology and climate have been built on those data sets. Plant physiological processes underlying the ability of the plants to adapt to the year-to-year variability of the climate still constitutes largely a black box. Since the experiments of René Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur in the 18th century, it is known that temperature constitutes the main environmental driver of the seasonal development of the mid- to high-latitude plants. Second to temperature, day length governs the seasonal cycle of some species as an additional factor. Therefore, temperature-driven phenological models are able to simulate the year-to-year variability of phenological entry dates accurately enough for various applications, such as climate change impact research or numerical pollen forecast models, where the beginning of flowering of some plants is linked with the release of allergic pollen into the atmosphere. Large-scale circulation patterns, like the North Atlantic Oscillation, determine the frequency and intensity of warm and cold spells and decadal temperature trends over Europe. Combined anthropogenic and natural forcings explain the advance of spring phenology over the last 50 years, which is also clearly discernible in the area of the Alps. The early phenological spring starts in Western Europe, whereas later in the season it makes progress with a stronger southerly component across the Alps. The combined temporal and spatial trends have been studied along elevational gradients. Trends toward earlier entry dates are stronger at higher elevations, which indicates that the elevational phenological gradient has weakened since the mid-20th century. Similarly, the vegetation response to temperature is observed to decrease when moving from high to low latitudes. In contrast, the temporal response of plant phenology to increasing temperatures is less clear. Some works indeed demonstrate a decreasing temperature sensitivity with increasing temperature, which is explained as a result of a reduced winter chilling that delays spring phenology or of a limiting effect due to a shorter photoperiod. Other works report no change of temporal temperature sensitivity with increasing temperatures. Indigenous midlatitude vegetation is able to withstand large temperature variations during winter and spring. The safety margin between last frost events, budding, and leaf emergence was found to be uniform across elevations and taxa, except for beech trees. The probability of freezing damage to natural vegetation is almost nil, but late frost risk constitutes a real threat to fruit growers. The ratio of phenological and last frost trends is ambiguous. An increase or decrease in frost risk depends on regions, elevations, and species. Vegetation at high altitudes is exposed to a harsh climate with a long-lasting snow cover, low temperatures, and a short growing season. Snowmelt is a necessary but insufficient requirement for the start of the growing season, which has to be supplemented by plant-specific temperature sums to activate the growth of most alpine and subalpine species. The seasonal cycle has to be completed within a short time. Advances in remote sensing technology have provided access to high-resolution landscape scale phenological information. Especially in remote areas, like the Alps, in situ observations could be supplemented by satellite observations. Observations from both methods, I -situ and remote sensing, have been applied to describe spring vegetation dynamics, but the correlation between these data sets have typically been weak because of differences in temporal and spatial scales and resolutions. A successfully combined description of the seasonal vegetation cycle is still lacking. The area of the European Alps offers a wealth of long chronicles, containing historical phenological observations some of which have been extracted and digitized. Grape harvest dates belong to the most readily available historical phenological observations, which have helped reconstruct summer temperatures as far back as the 15th century.


Saharan Dust Records and Its Impact in the European Alps  

Marion Greilinger and Anne Kasper-Giebl

Mineral dust is one of the main natural sources of atmospheric particulate matter, with the Sahara being one of the most important source regions for the occurrence and deposition of mineral dust in Europe. The occurrence of dust events in the European Alps is documented via measurements of airborne dust and its deposits onto the glaciers. Dust events occur mainly in spring, summer, and early autumn. Dust layers are investigated in ice cores spanning the last millennium as well as in annual snow packs. They strongly affect the overall flux of dust-related compounds (e.g., calcium and magnesium), provide an alkaline input to wet deposition chemistry, and change the microbial abundance and diversity of the snow pack. Still airborne mineral dust particles can act as ice nuclei and cloud condensation nuclei, influencing the formation of cloud droplets and hence cloud formation and precipitation. Dust deposits on the snow lead to a darkening of the surface, referred to as “surface albedo reduction,” which influences the timing of the snowmelt and reduces the annual mass balance of glaciers, showing a direct link to glacier retreat as observed presently in a warming climate.


Social Theory and Climate Change  

Robert J. Antonio

Social and biophysical limits to population and economic growth have long been an intense matter of contestation and division among social theorists. The roots of this split originated with warnings by Thomas Malthus about overpopulation and 19th-century political-economic debates about the expansion of modern capitalism, especially its alleged capacity to generate continuous, unplanned exponential growth and its actual unparalleled acceleration of growth and profound social and biophysical changes it wrought. The post–World War II era economic expansion of capitalism, or “Great Acceleration,” massively increased the size of the global economy relative to the biosphere, greatly intensified resource consumption and waste production, and consequently sharply accelerated climate change and other environmental problems. The public, experts, and corporate interests disagreed about strategies to cope with ecological damages, especially when they threatened to curtail economic growth. The seriousness of the threats posed by climate change and the scope of technical challenges, regulatory interventions, and socioeconomic costs of mitigation, especially decarbonization, have been the subject of intense disagreement among social theorists and divergent policy proposals. Social theory debates have focused on the role of capitalist production, organization, consumption, and culture. Centrally, they have addressed whether capital accumulation and growth are the ultimate indirect drivers of anthropogenic climate change and whether their material and social benefits outweigh their damages to the environment and human well-being. Social theorists also have debated whether market-based incentives and market-driven technological progress can cope sufficiently with climate change; whether statist efforts to adapt to and mitigate it sustain or undermine democracy; and whether climate change requires fundamental transformation of capitalism, modest reforms, or little or no planned change. Social theory debates over these policy positions have been in part shaped and justified via divergent “constructivist” and “realist” epistemologies. Constructivists argue that realists are too trustful of scientific authority, favor top-down technocracy, ignore voices of local publics, exaggerate the certainty of climate and other ecological futures, and pose environmental policies that cannot meet energy demands and economic needs of poor nations. Realists hold that constructivists have a flawed relativist epistemology; exaggerate the uncertainty of scientific findings; underestimate the speed, dangers, and possible irreversible damages of climate change and other global environmental problems; place too much confidence in markets and technology; and understate the already serious and likely to grow much worse damages that poor nations and regions suffer. The social theory debates over climate change and other global environmental problems’ severity and prospective policy options mediate between science and democratic public life and thereby inform debates over possible collective actions to address the inevitable trade-offs between limiting serious ecological damage and sustaining socioeconomic well-being.