Climate Change Triggers Abrupt Deviations in Mountain Ecosystems

In the Alps, spring snowmelt is happening earlier in the year because of climate change and consequently activating sudden deviations in mountain ecosystems. Such variations could negatively impact the working of such useful ecosystems.

Winter and summer at the field site, Hohe Mut, high up in the Austrian Alps. Image Credit: Richard Bardgett.

A new study has shown that vitally essential microbial communities found in Alpine soils are at risk as a direct consequence of rising global temperatures caused by continual climate change.

Such belowground microbes are crucial for aboveground life since they recycle the main nutrients on which all animals and plants rely, inclusive of humans. They regulate the amount of carbon that is stored safely in the soil, where it cannot lead to further global warming.

During winter, microbes in the Alpine soil tend to rely on snow to serve as an insulating blanket, enabling them to keep working through the entire cold alpine winter.

But it has been predicted that the yearly Alpine winter snowpack will start melting more than 100 days sooner compared to now by the end of the 21st century. Researchers from The University of Manchester used in-the-field experiments to show how this will impact soil microbes, and the crucial functions they carry out. The study results have been published in The ISME Journal.

It is still a huge difficulty for researchers to gain insights into how soil microbes react to climate change and how this impacts biogeochemical cycles. This is particularly relevant in Alpine regions where climate change occurs at double the rate of the global average.

Our paper reveals alarming climate change impacts on soil microbial communities, and the biogeochemical cycles that they regulate in mountain ecosystems. Using a high-alpine experiment in the Austrian Alps, we discovered that spring snowmelt triggers an abrupt seasonal transition in soil microbial communities, which is closely linked to rapid shifts in carbon and nitrogen cycling.

Dr Arthur Broadbent, Study Lead Author, University of Manchester

Snowmelt is predicted to occur 50-130 days earlier in alpine regions due to climate change by the end of the century. Using experimental manipulations, we demonstrated that earlier snowmelt, of even just 10 days, leads to an earlier seasonal transition in microbial communities and biogeochemical cycling,” added Dr Broadbent.

As a result, the working of winter ecosystem will be decreased in seasonally snow-covered ecosystems under climate change in the future, endangering plant productivity and carbon retention. This would have a negative impact on agricultural production and interrupt natural ecosystems.

It will lead to modifications in annual carbon fluxes in such ecosystems and likely cause additional climate warming.

Journal Reference:

Broadbent, A. A. D., et al. (2021) Climate change alters temporal dynamics of alpine soil microbial functioning and biogeochemical cycling via earlier snowmelt. The ISME Journal.


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