U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

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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

Treeline along an elevational gradient in the Colorado Rockies, one of seven mountaintop regions sampled in a recent study. [Image courtesy Aimee Classen, University of Vermont]

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.

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.

BER PM Contact
Daniel Stover, SC-23.1, Daniel.Stover@science.doe.gov, 301-903-0289

PI Contact
Aimee T. Classen      
University of Vermont

This work was made possible by a Wallenberg Scholars Award to D.A.W.; regional support from Fondecyt 1120171 to A.F.; National Science Foundation Dimensions of Biodiversity grant (NSF-1136703), Carlsberg Fund grant, and support from the Danish National Research Foundation to the Center for Macroecology, Evolution, and Climate to N.J.S.; U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Terrestrial Ecosystem Science program award (DE-SC0010562) to A.T.C.; support from the UK 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., and 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.

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

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science
  • Research Area: Carbon Cycle, Biosequestration
  • Research Area: Climate and Earth System Modeling
  • Mission Science: Climate

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


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