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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Alpine Indicators

Alpine Indicators

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Saturday, November 10, 2018/Categories: natural history, sustainability, environment, climate change

           Alpine Meadows on the Tibetan Plateau (credit: Biological Conservation & Dartmouth University)

Environments on ecological margins, like timberlines, are what ecologists call an ecotone. They are zones where you can observe environmental changes occuring virtually in real time. Plants are now responding to changing climates by "marching" up mountainsides from their original alpine meadows. Their movement is very fast.

Research in alpine landscapes on the Tibetan plateau, have been conducted by ecologists from Dartmouth University along with Chinese and Tibetan associates. The studies have shown that alpine plants have moved rapidly upwards due to a changing climatic conditions on the high plateau. In less than 30 years, lush alpine meadows, once blanketed in herbs and grasses, are now covered in shrubs. The results of the research have been published by the journal Biological Conservation.

                                      Tibetan Plateau Alpine Meadows  (credit: WWF)

The lead author Jodi Brandt commented noted:"nearly 40% of alpine meadows that we studied had converted from meadows into shrublands at the study sites between 1990 and 2009."  This represents a biological timeline of less than 20 years.

Tibetan Alpine Meadow  (credit: Tibet Environmental Watch)

Closer to the home, recent investigations have shown similar responses at mountain ecotones in the western USA. The iconic Bristlecone pines, Methuselah trees alive before Jesus, as well as the small alpine rodent the pika, are showing similar responses to warming mountain temperatures.

Ecological boundaries can tell a great deal about the affects of changing environments. We typically think environmental change is a slow, almost glacial process. What is being observed in Tibet, and our own high mountain ranges, has been compared to watching an ice cube melt in a glass of hot water.





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