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Climate Warming Could Cause Mountaintop Plants and Soils to Become Out of Sync
Published: January 25, 2017
Posted: March 16, 2017

Plants and soil microorganisms may be altered by climate warming at different rates and in different ways, meaning important nutrient patterns could be misaligned.

The Science   
Warmer climates on mountaintops will alter the activity of plants and soil microbes, which can alter the availability and movement of important nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and carbon. As a result, these cycles may become out of step with their historic patterns at high elevations, severely impacting plants that have evolved under those patterns.

The Impact
In many mountain ecosystems around the world, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles at warmer, low elevations are becoming decoupled, while they are constrained at higher, cool elevations. Consequently, plants may not be able to “march up the mountainside” when it warms, as many models predict. A recent study shows how mountain ecosystems, which are biodiversity hotspots and provide numerous important human services such as clean drinking water, may respond to warming in the future.

Summary
Despite interest in how climate warming affects ecological processes, remarkably little is known about whether similar types of ecosystems respond to warming in different locations. By comparing seven replicated temperate treeline ecotones worldwide, researchers showed that comparable changes to temperature affect plant community-level nutrient dynamics in remarkably similar ways across contrasting regions. Notably, their study reveals that, despite broad differences in regional floras and geologies, declining temperatures at high elevations universally constrained plant nutrient dynamics. This finding has broad global change implications, given the high risk that alpine environments face under global climate change.

Contacts
BER Program Managers
Daniel Stover and Jared DeForest
SC-23.1
Daniel.Stover@science.doe.gov (301-903-0289) and Jared.DeForest@science.doe.gov (301-903-1678)

Principal Investigator
Aimee T. Classen        
University of Vermont
Burlington, VT 05405
Aimee.Classen@uvm.edu

Funding
This work was made possible by a Wallenberg Scholars Award to D.A.W.; regional support from Fondecyt 1120171 to A.F.; a National Science Foundation (NSF) Dimensions of Biodiversity grant (NSF-1136703), a grant from the Carlsberg Fund, and support from the Danish National Research Foundation to the Center for Macroecology, Evolution, and Climate to N.J.S.; a Terrestrial Ecosystem Science program of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, within the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, Award (DE-SC0010562) to A.T.C.; support from the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council to R.D.B.; support from the BiodivERsA project REGARDS (ANR-12-EBID-004-01) to J.-C.C., S.L., K.G., and REGARDS (FWF-I-1056) to M.B.; support from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (VENI 451-14-017) to D.L.O.; and support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to Z.G.

Publications
Mayor, J., et al. “Elevation alters ecosystem properties across temperate treelines globally.” Nature 542, 91–95 (2017). [DOI:10.1038/nature21027].

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Earth and Environmental Systems Modeling
  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science
  • Research Area: Carbon Cycle, Nutrient Cycling

Division: SC-33.1 Earth and Environmental Sciences Division, BER

 

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