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Plant Responses to Recent Warming in the Southern Alps
Reference
Erschbamer, B., Kiebacher, T., Mallaun, M. and Unterluggauer, P. 2009. Short-term signals of climate change along an altitudinal gradient in the South Alps. Plant Ecology 202: 79-89.

Background
The authors write that one of the predicted consequences of rising temperatures "is the migration of plant species from lower altitudes to higher elevations provoking consecutive displacements of alpine and nival plant species (i.e. 'biodiversity disasters')."

What was done
Erschbamer et al. documented and analyzed changes (from 2001 to 2006) in plant species number, frequency and composition along an altitudinal gradient crossing four summits from the treeline ecotone to the subnival zone in the South Alps (Dolomites, Italy), where minimum temperatures increased by 1.1-2.0C during the past century with a marked rise over the last decades.

What was learned
In the words of the four researchers, "after five years, a re-visitation of the summit areas revealed a considerable increase of species richness at the upper alpine and subnival zone (10% and 9%, respectively) and relatively modest increases at the lower alpine zone and the treeline ecotone (3% and 1%, respectively)." In addition, with respect to threats of extinction, they report that "during the last five years, the endemic species of the research area were hardly affected," while "at the highest summit, one endemic species was even among the newcomers."

What it means
The Austrian scientists conclude that "at least in short to medium time scales, the southern alpine endemics of the study area should not be seriously endangered." Moreover, as they continue, "the three higher summits of the study area have a pronounced relief providing potential surrogate habitats for these species." They also report, in this regard, that "recently published monitoring data from high altitudes indicate a consistent increase of species richness in the Alps," citing the work of Pauli et al. (2007) and Holzinger et al. (2008).

References
Holzinger, B., Hulber, K., Camenisch, M. and Grabherr, G. 2008. Changes in plant species richness over the last century in the eastern Swiss Alps: elevational gradient, bedrock effects and migration rates. Plant Ecology 195: 179-196.

Pauli, H., Gottfried, M., Reiter, K., Klettner, C. and Grabherr, G. 2007. Signals of range expansions and contractions of vascular plants in the high Alps: observations (1994-2004) at the GLORIA master site Schrankogel, Tyrol, Austria. Global Change Biology 13: 147-156.

Reviewed 30 September 2009