UM research: Mountain environments more vulnerable to climate change than reported

UM

Missoula Current

New research by a forest ecology professor at the University of Montana shows that relocating organisms will face more hardships as climate change makes their current homes uninhabitable.

In a recently published paper, UM Professor Solomon Dobrowski and co-author Sean Parks – a scientist at the Forest Service Aldo Leopold Research Institute and a UM alumnus – propose a new method to model how fast and where organisms will need to move to keep pace with climate change.

Their paper, “Climate change velocity underestimates climate change exposure in mountainous regions,” was published Aug. 1 in Nature Communications.

Mountains support roughly a quarter of the globe’s terrestrial biodiversity and contain about a third of its protected areas. It also houses nearly half of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the researchers said.

When measuring how vulnerable a site is to climate change, scientists estimate how far organisms at that site need to move to maintain a consistent temperature as the planet warms. The diversity of climates in mountain landscapes means that when temperatures rise, organisms might have to only move a short distance to get to a cooler home.

However, Dobrowksi and Parks show that measuring the distance from one area of suitable climate to the next doesn’t account for the resistance organisms will encounter as they traverse areas with very different climates, like a warm valley between two mountain peaks.

Dobrowski said researches must look at more than just measuring how far an organism must move in order to keep up with climate change.

“We also need to look at how much organisms will be exposed to dissimilar climates along the way,” he said. “Once we do that, we find that even short movements in mountainous areas expose organisms to large climate differences. This may prevent plants and animals from being able to maintain a suitable climate as the earth warms.”

Dobrowski and Parks suggest that areas within mountains are more climatically isolated and thus more vulnerable to climate change than previously reported.