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Headlines Published on 23 April 2004

Title Pining for a sustainable environment

Bad puns aside, climate change and fragile ecosystems are a major concern for world leaders. Research into the effects of global warming on Europe’s humble mountain pine is helping Austrians with their environmental planning.  

Austrian pines on the rise, climate change spawns forest spread © Image: Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment
Austrian pines on the rise, climate change spawns forest spread

© Image: Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment
Climate change could dramatically increase forest cover on the Earth’s mountainous regions, ecologists are predicting. Using data collected from the Austrian Alps, a team of scientists have developed a model for predicting pine coverage. Their results may surprise those who associate global warming with deforestation.

The shrubby looking mountain pine with the unfortunate scientific name of Pinus mugo Turra will increase coverage of the Austrian Alps from 10% today to 60% by the turn of the next millennium, according to the model created by Stefan Dullinger and company from the University of Vienna. The team’s study – entitled ‘Modelling climate change-driven treeline shifts: relative effects of temperature increase, dispersal and invisibility’ – is published in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Ecology.

Based on the assumption that Alpine treelines are sensitive to climatic shifts, the Austrians predict that mountain pine will continue its upward climb and encroach on fragile Alpine vegetation. Their study is the first to model treeline dynamics driven by climate change under specific (temporal and spatial) conditions.

Ups and downs of research
Ecology is the science that studies the relationships of living things to one another and to their physical surroundings. Knowing more about it helps to answer key scientific questions which, in turn, inform political decision-making. In its Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), the EU has set aside €700 million to fund research aimed at improving our understanding of global change, ecosystems and biodiversity, and to support the creation of new management and forecasting models, such as the Austrian team’s.

In the past 100 years, Earth’s temperature has increased by around 0.6°C, and the rate of warming looks set to accelerate. As a result, shrinkage and fragmentation of alpine habitats may pose a serious threat to populations of many alpine plants, notes Dullinger.

But the spread of mountain forests could also benefit human welfare, providing erosion control and increased water-holding capacity in many high mountain water catchments. Indeed, the City of Vienna is using the model for civil planning, and plans to use pine forests as a way of protecting drinking water catchments from erosion and pollution. 

The team cautions against applying its findings too broadly to predict all mountain forest conditions. “Treelines may respond quite idiosyncratically to global warming,” Dullinger explains. “Our model highlights the complex interactions of temperature rise, species-specific traits and resident alpine vegetation cover in driving a possible future treeline expansion.”

Source:  British Ecological Society

Research Contacts page

More information:

  • Relevant report (Journal of Ecology, Vol. 92)
  • British Ecological Society (produces Journal of Ecology)
  • Sustainable development, global change and ecosystems (FP6 theme)
  • Scientific naming (Linnaean taxonomy, Wikipedia)
  • Forestry research comes out of woods (Headlines 7 April 2004)

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