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Ecol Appl. 2008 Apr;18(3):637-48.

Accelerating climate change impacts on alpine glacier forefield ecosystems in the European Alps.

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  • 1University of Ferrara, Department of Biology and Evolution, Ferrara, Italy.


In the European Alps the increase in air temperature was more than twice the increase in global mean temperature over the last 50 years. The abiotic (glacial) and the biotic components (plants and vegetation) of the mountain environment are showing ample evidence of climate change impacts. In the Alps most small glaciers (80% of total glacial coverage and an important contribution to water resources) could disappear in the next decades. Recently climate change was demonstrated to affect higher levels of ecological systems, with vegetation exhibiting surface area changes, indicating that alpine and nival vegetation may be able to respond in a fast and flexible way in response to 1-2 degrees C warming. We analyzed the glacier evolution (terminus fluctuations, mass balances, surface area variations), local climate, and vegetation succession on the forefield of Sforzellina Glacier (Upper Valtellina, central Italian Alps) over the past three decades. We aimed to quantify the impacts of climate change on coupled biotic and abiotic components of high alpine ecosystems, to verify if an acceleration was occurring on them during the last decade (i.e., 1996-2006) and to assess whether new specific strategies were adopted for plant colonization and development. All the glaciological data indicate that a glacial retreat and shrinkage occurred and was much stronger after 2002 than during the last 35 years. Vegetation started to colonize surfaces deglaciated for only one year, with a rate at least four times greater than that reported in the literature for the establishment of scattered individuals and about two times greater for the well-established discontinuous early-successional community. The colonization strategy changed: the first colonizers are early-successional, scree slopes, and perennial clonal species with high phenotypic plasticity rather than pioneer and snowbed species. This impressive acceleration coincided with only slight local summer warming (approximately -0.5 degree C) and a poorly documented local decrease in the snow cover depth and duration. Are we facing accelerated ecological responses to climatic changes and/or did we go beyond a threshold over which major ecosystem changes may occur in response to even minor climatic variations?

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