Plants "Climbing" Mountains Due to Global Warming

June 26, 2008

Like people vacationing in the mountains to escape summer heat, plants are "climbing" to higher elevations to cope with global warming, a new study shows.

Previous research has suggested that many plant and animal species have been shifting their ranges toward the Poles as the planet warms.

(Read related news: "Wild Holly, Mistletoe, Spread With Warmer Winters" [December 7, 2005].)

Now scientists have found evidence that plants have also been slowly moving into higher elevations to stay within ideal temperature zones.

Each year this "escalator effect" is pushing plants upward by about ten feet (three meters).

"When we started to look at this, I was not expecting such a strong message," said study leader Jonathan Lenoir, a forest ecologist at AgroParisTech, a research institute in France.

If global warming continues over the coming decades—as researchers predict it will—the plants will continue to climb. (Explore an interactive map of the effects of global warming.)

But since some species move faster than others, this shift could tear established ecosystems apart, the researchers report in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

Moving on Up

For more than a century naturalists all over the world have been recording exactly where they found various plant species in the mountains.

"Botanists used to wander in mountain ecosystems … to look for and study specific mountain plant communities, to locate rare and endangered plant communities … or even simply to enjoy the landscape within mountains," Lenoir said.

In the mountains climate conditions change dramatically with altitude, making it is easier to detect when certain species shift to higher elevations.

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