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Published: 2018-07-03

Alpine ecosystems under the microscope

PROFILE Studying nature in a slow-changing climate is time-consuming. But Maja Sundqvist speeds things up by using natural variations in altitude in different mountain regions to explore how a warmer climate will affect both alpine and arctic ecosystems.

Image: Mattias Pettersson

Ecosystems on high mountains and in cold areas are sensitive to a warming climate. But vegetation and land conditions change slowly when temperatures are increasing, and it takes time to follow the progress in these often inaccessible areas. To speed up the process, Maja Sundqvist and her research colleagues use natural elevational gradients in mountain regions as 'climate laboratories'. The lowest temperatures are measured at the top of the mountain, and with declining elevation it gets gradually warmer – almost like sneaking a peak into the future.

Mountain ecosystems are hot spots for biodiversity – they contain many unique species that are highly sensitive to climate change. Signs of a warming climate can already be seen. Some plants are more common in tundra areas – deciduous shrubs, for instance – and in some areas certain species are now found at higher elevations than previously observed," says Maja Sundqvist.

Maja Sundqvist is studying the interplay between how plants and soils change along these natural gradients, and in experiments with varying average temperatures, grazing pressure, elevation and type of vegetation. In one study, she and her research colleagues measured diversity, nutrient dynamics and productivity on elevation gradients in seven various temperate zones around the world: Central Europe, Hokkaido in Japan, Eastern Australia, New Zealand, Colorado in the US, British Columbia in Canada and Patagonia in South America.

"Remarkably, some effects of changes in temperature with elevation in these widely spread mountain regions were relatively similar. With ongoing climate change, we can expect ecosystem changes in mountain regions, partly associated with a shifting balance between nitrogen and phosphorus."


Text: Camilla Bergvall
Translation: Anna Lawrence
Photo: Mattias Pettersson

This article was first published in the magazine Think no. 1 2017.