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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Alpine Indicators

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Saturday, June 14, 2014/Categories: natural history, sustainability, environment, climate change

Places on the margins, what ecologists call an  ecotone , are where you watch things happen in virtual real time. Plants are now marching up Tibetan mountainsides from their original alpine boundary meadows fast,,,very fast.

New studies on the vast Tibetan alpine plateau, conducted by ecologists from Dartmouth University and their Chinese and Tibetan associates, have shown that Tibetan alpine plants have moved rapidly upwards due to a changing climate 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 has been published in the journal  Biological Conservation .


Tibetan Plateau Alpine Meadows  (credit: WWF)

Dartmouth lead author Jodi Brandt commented in their report that:

"nearly 40% of alpine meadows that we studied had converted from meadows into shrubs 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 studies have shown similar responses at mountain ecotones in the western US. The iconic  Bristlecone pines ---Methuselah trees long alive before Jesus---as well as the small alpine rodent, the pika , are showing similar affects of warming temperatures in the mountains.

Ecological boundaries tell you a good deal about recent climate and other events. What we typically believe is that environmental change is a glacial process. What is being observed in Tibet, and our own high mountain ranges, is like watching an ice cube melting in a glass of hot water.

WHB

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