Mountainous Regions May Be More Vulnerable to Climate Change than Previously Suggested

Scientists may have underestimated just how much mountainous environments will be affected by climate change. Current methods used to calculate climate change velocity don’t take into account some of the unique features of mountain regions. The details are in a study just published in the journal Nature Communications.

Mountains contain a great amount of biodiversity, in part because they have diverse climate types. Mountainous areas often have multiple ecosystems within a short range, supporting a huge variety of plant and animal species. Desert, tropical, and polar environments can all be found in mountains. Yet very little climate change research has focused on these areas.

Climate change velocity is one way to measure how much an ecosystem will be impacted by global warming conditions. Specifically, it measures how long organisms will be exposed to unsuitable climates as well as their ability to move to a proper habitat. Mountains have long been considered to have low climate change velocity. Since mountain ranges contain many climate types in a small area, animals can take a short journey to get to a proper environment.

Researchers from the University of Montana wanted to get a better idea of how climate change will affect mountainous regions. Rather than use the current method of simply calculating the distance to a suitable climate, the team looked at another factor: minimum cumulative exposure. Minimum cumulative exposure, or MCE, measures how long an organism will be exposed to improper climates during their journey to a suitable area. The team found that if MCE was used in calculations, mountain-dwelling organisms were much more vulnerable to climate change than previous studies had suggested. While it might be a short path to a suitable climate, animals would be exposed to dangerous conditions as they pass through different ecosystems.

The researchers concluded that past measurements of climate change velocity didn’t consider factors unique to mountainous areas. Overall exposure to improper climates matters more than the simple length of a journey to a suitable location. The authors recommend that climate change models take these types of factors into account.


Solomon Z. Dobrowski et al. Climate change velocity underestimates climate change exposure in mountainous regions. Nature Communications (2016).

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