HOW COLD-ADAPTED PLANTS ARE UNDER THREAT FROM CLIMATE CHANGE (AND WHY WE NEED THEM)

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Alpine environments all over the world, including parts of the United Kingdom, are under threat from the ever increasing global temperatures related to climate change and global warming. 

Do higher temperatures lead to the death of alpine plants which are specially adapted to surviving harsh wintery conditions, or is this simply a myth? What can governments and the wider public do to manage the conservation of alpine environments, which remain one of the largest biodiversity hotspots on Earth? Read on to find out!

The Threat of Global Warming

One of the consequences of climate change is, of course, global warming, whereby the average temperature of the world is increasing due to a build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

Unsurprisingly, this is having an adverse effect on the survival rates of plants, which are highly specialised in surviving very cold temperatures. Is the premature death of these so-called “alpine plants” due to them not being able to make enough “food” for themselves at higher temperatures, otherwise known as photosynthesis? 

Once we know whether photosynthesis is a factor influencing the death of alpine plants in warmer climates, we may be able to design more tailored conservation efforts to artificially limit the decline of alpine plants. This is necessary as maintaining variation of plant species in the world is of the utmost importance to scientists, as some plants have high medicinal value or are essential in the maintenance of the natural geography of the planet, for example. Plus, never being able to see those rolling alpine meadows ever again like you see in Heidi, Girl of the Alps, personally sends shivers down my spine.

The Adaptations of the Lingonberry

A great example of a plant which has various adaptations to allow it to thrive in colder environments is the lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea). 

Characteristics include a short stature which prevents the plant from being adversely affected by cold winds and a thick waxy cuticle which prevents water loss; very important as alpine climates are a water-limited environment. This means that the lingonberry never has much water travelling through its vascular bundles and, as a consequence, is relatively dry. 

According to Turechek et al. (2010), higher temperatures in combination with stronger UV rays from direct sunlight causes leaf scorch, whereby parts of the leaves turn brown. Leaf scorch is more likely to occur if the plant doesn’t contain much water, so the lingonberry is highly susceptible to this. 

The Importance of Alpine Plants

Lingonberries and other alpine plants have been found to significantly reduce the risk of landslides and avalanches. The roots of lingonberries can go up to 11 inches deep (Strong and LaRoi 1986). Huck et al. (2002) found that the anchoring of alpine plants’ roots on mountainsides reduces the risk of avalanches and landslides by stabilising the soil. 

Although relatively uncommon in the UK, avalanches still occur, especially in the Scottish Highlands. For example, there were 18 avalanches reported in the summer of 2021 in the Glencoe region alone, according to the Scottish Avalanche Information Service website (https://www.sais.gov.uk/). 

So, by better understanding how higher temperatures are causing a decline in the population of alpine plants, scientists can design better conservation efforts to stop their endangerment or even extinction. This, in turn, will prevent the devastating effects of landslides and avalanches hitting infrastructure and people. For example, Rixen and Wipf (2017) believe that moderate grazing of land near mountain summits will stop succession and invasion of plants found beneath the treeline into alpine territories by creating a natural barrier. 

We cannot let these alpine plants fade from existence, let alone the forefront of our minds. Hopefully, you understand the importance of alpine plants not only to us, but to future generations as well. 

References

TURECHEK ET AL. 2010: Estimation of the impact of leaf scorch on photosynthesis and “physiological-lesion” size in strawberries. Canadian Journal of Plant Pathology, 29, 159-165

STRONG, W. L.; LAROI, G. H. 1986: A strategy for concurrently monitoring the plant water potentials of spatially separate forest ecosystems. Canadian Journal of Forest Research, 16, 346-351

HUCK ET AL. 2002: Plant species dominance shifts across erosion edge-meadow transects in the Swiss Alps. Oecologia, 171, 693-703

RIXEN, C; WIPF, S 2017: Non-equilibrium in alpine plant assemblages: shifts in Europe’s summit floras. High Mountain Conservation in a Changing World, 62, 285-303

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