High summits of the Alps in a changing climate

The oldest observation series on high mountain plant diversity in Europe
  • Harald Pauli
  • Michael Gottfried
  • Georg Grabherr


High mountain vegetation is considered to respond sensitively to climatic changes. Therefore, historical records on vascular plant species richness from high summits of the Alps were used as reference data to detect climate-induced changes of plant diversity. Reinvestigations on 30 summits provided evidence that species are migrating to higher altitudes.

The longest observation series originates from the nival summit of Piz Linard (3411 m a.s.l., SE-Switzerland). Five investigations on Piz Linard, between 1835 and 1937, showed that the number of species increased successively from one to 10species. This tenfold rise of the species number was most likely caused by the climate warming since the 19th century. Other causes, like enhanced seed dispersal by animals, fertilising effects by grazing mammals or byair pollution, can largely be excluded.

However, species richness remained unchanged after 1937 according to data from 1947 and 1992, although climate warming continued. The subnivaUnival species pool probably reached a saturation in the 1930s. On the other hand, half of the species, which have been already present in 1937, expanded their population size and grew at new sites in 1992. These species were able to fill “empty” micro habitats, where climate warming obviously caused increasingly favourable growing conditions. For potential invaders from the alpine grassland below, conditions were still to harsh, and appropriate ascent corridors appear to be underrepresented at this mountain. On other high summits of the Alps, immigration of alpine grassland species within the 2nd half of the 20th century was observed.

The upwards shift of species on high mountain summits suggests that plants already respond to climate warming. Serious biodiversity lossescan be expected in the near future if predicted climate warming holdstrue.


Species Richness Climate Warming High Mountain Alpine Grassland Summit Area 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Harald Pauli
    • 1
  • Michael Gottfried
    • 1
  • Georg Grabherr
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Conservation Biology, Vegetation and Landscape EcologyUniversity of Vienna, Institute of Ecology and Conservation BiologyWienAustria

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