January 10th, 2012 by

As we experience what I’m affectionately dubbing the dog days of winter — aka the unseasonably warm temperatures that much of the country has been experiencing of late — the news that some cold-loving flora may not survive the coming decades because of warming temperatures is hardly surprising, but still mightily depressing.

Austrian Hochschwab Mountains plant research

Researchers collecting samples on the Austrian Hochschwab Mountains. Credit: Harald Pauli

According to researchers at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the University of Vienna, cold-loving plants across Europe’s mountains are quickly losing ground to their warm-loving brethren. Biologists first took samples in 2001 at 60 summits across Europe. They returned seven years later for comparative samples and were surprised at what awaited them.

In a press release on the study, Dr. Michael Gottfried of the Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments, which coordinated the study, says, “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. Many cold-loving species are literally running out of mountain. In some of the lower mountains in Europe, we could see alpine meadows disappearing and dwarf shrubs taking over within the next few decades.” Eep!

Regional studies have been supporting this theory for quite awhile, but this new research purports to be the first to examine the issue on a continental scale. One of the results that I found particularly interesting is that the invasion of warm-loving plants isn’t tied to altitude: plants along the treeline, as well as those along the high mountain peaks, are all being affected. Also, the effects were similar across the continent from the high north of Scotland to the Greek isles. Not good.

Someone needs to go tell the warm-loving plants to stop bullying their cold-loving friends. And if we could work on stopping the warming trend, I’m sure they’d be mighty appreciative. Good thing trees can help the climate by storing carbon, which helps reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the air. So helping protect our forests may help protect our plants. I like it!