EARTH Magazine


In 1835, only one individual of one species was found growing on the summit of Piz Linard in the Swiss Alps, 3,410 meters above sea level. Today, botanists have identified 16 plant species on the peak. (Hansueli Rhyner, SLF, Switzerland)

It takes a hardy plant to live on top of a mountain, but new research shows that summits in the Alps are hosting more species of plants than ever before. Long-term botany surveys conducted on 302 European mountaintops over the past 145 years show that the variety of plant species living on the harsh summits has markedly increased over the last 10 years due to climate change.

“We find a continentwide acceleration in the rate of increase in plant species richness, with five times as much species enrichment between 2007 and 2016 as 50 years ago, between 1957 and 1966. This acceleration is strikingly synchronized with accelerated global warming,” researchers led by Manuel Steinbauer of Aarhus University in Denmark wrote in Nature.

As they move up the mountain, seeking ideal growing conditions, plants once found at lower elevations may be pushing out higher-elevation plants, possibly causing extinctions. “Some of the species which have adapted to the cold and rocky conditions on mountain summits will probably disappear in the long term,” Steinbauer said in a statement. “They have nowhere else to go, and they can’t develop rapidly enough to be able to compete with the new arrivals, which are taller and more competitive under warmer climates.”