• A monitoring site for alpine vegetation set up in Garibaldi Provincial Park (height: 2,260m), with the Blackcomb Glacier in the background. (Photo: Kristina Swerhun)

In the not-so-distant future, mountaintops across the world may look a lot more like mountain bases.According to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change last week, alpine plant communities may be changing more quickly than expected as a result of warming temperatures.

Researchers from across Europe catalogued 867 different plant species from 60 peaks across the continent, first in 2001 and again in 2008. They discovered that plants generally found in warmer areas of a mountain are on the move, crowding out plants found in colder climates. Some cold-adapted species could disappear within the next few decades.

Cold-adapted species like this purple-flowered plant, Nevadensia purpurea, could disappear within the next few decades.

While all of the mountain peaks in this report were located in Europe, similar studies are underway in Canada.

The study was conducted by the Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments (GLORIA) program, a network of researchers who monitor alpine regions to assess and predict biodiversity and habitat loss as a result of climate change.

According to Michael Gottfried, a key contributor to the study and GLORIA coordinator, this is the first study to observe these ecosystem transformations first hand on such a large scale. Other studies have previously predicted similar results using models or observed changes on a regional scale.

“We expected to find a greater number of warm-loving plants at higher altitudes, but we did not expect to find such a significant change in such a short space of time,” Gottfried said in a press release. “Many cold-loving species are literally running out of mountain.”

An average warming trend was noted in the study regions and 42 of the 60 summits showed some transformation, either by loss of cold-adapted plant species or movement of warm-adapted plants into the study site.

Researcher Hans Roemer collects data at a monitoring site in Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Reserve (1,450 m). Photo: Kristina Swerhun

No comprehensive study has been completed using Canadian data through the GLORIA program yet, but monitoring sites have been set up and plans are in the works for more. Similar results to the Nature study are expected here as well.

“Supposedly the same effects do and will occur [in Canada],” said Gottfried. Many of the areas included in the study, he says, are comparable with alpine ecosystems in North America.

Kristina Swerhun is the volunteer coordinator of two monitoring sites in Canada: one close to Whistler, B.C., in Garibaldi Provincial Park and one on Vancouver Island on Mount Arrowsmith. Swerhun is also the executive director of a non-profit based in Whistler that manages invasive species in the area.

Researchers Bob Brett and Amber Paulson collect data in Garibaldi Provincial Park (2,260m). Photo: Kristina Swerhun

She helped establish both sites, the first in Canada, as a graduate student at the University of Victoria in 2006.

Site setup includes creating an inventory of the plants in the test site area and burying temperature loggers to collect soil temperature data.

She is using the same method for data collection as the European researchers included in the Nature study. This ensures the data are comparable for any future reports.

“I didn’t create any of the protocol for the project; I followed their protocol because it is so applicable between here and there,” she says. “When I do come around to doing analysis of the data I’ll be following in their footsteps, keeping it very consistent, making sure we gather all the data so we can do comparable analyses.”

Last summer, Swerhun returned to her sites to replace the temperature monitors and hopes to do a full re-monitoring in 2016. This will include creating a new inventory of the plants in the test site.

Comparing the 2006 and 2016 inventories will show how the plant community changed during the 10-year gap. By comparing those changes with her temperature data, Swerhun will be able to deduce the role climate change played in the transformation.

“This is a pretty unique project,” said Swerhun. “Usually when people do studies it’s over five or ten years and there’s always an endpoint. For this it is really good that there is no endpoint, that we can collect data for a long time. It’s one of the reasons that drew me to the project… the data after 50 years or 100 years will be so much more valuable.”

According to Michael Gottfried, GLORIA program sites around the world will continue to be monitored in the coming years. Eventually the data will be assembled in a global report that will show how climate change affects alpine plant communities around the world.

For a list of other GLORIA program sites in Canada and across the globe, click here.