Rapid changes in eastern Himalayan alpine flora with climate change

Jan Salick, Zhendong Fang, Robbie Hart
American Journal of Botany 2019 April 1

PREMISE OF THE STUDY: With biodiversity and rates of climate change among the highest, the eastern Himalaya are critical for understanding the interaction of these two variables. However, there is a dearth of longitudinal data sets that address the effects of climate change on the exceptional alpine biodiversity of the Himalaya.

METHODS: We established permanent alpine vegetation monitoring plots in three mountain chains of the Hengduan Mountains, the easternmost Himalaya, which have warmed 0.03-0.05°C yr-1 since 1985. Recently, we resampled plots (176 1-m2 quadrat plots and 88 sections of 11 summits in three Hengduan mountain chains) to measure changes in vegetation after 7 years.

KEY RESULTS: Over 7 years, Tibetan alpine vegetation increased in number of species (+8 species/summit; +2.3 species/m2 ), in frequency (+47.8 plants/m2 ), and in diversity (+1.6 effective species/m2 ). Stepwise regressions indicated that warmer temperatures, southerly aspects, and higher elevations were associated with greater increases in these vegetation metrics. Unexpectedly, Himalayan endemic species increased (+1.4 species/m2 ; +8.5 plants/m2 ), especially on higher-elevation summits. In contrast, the increase in relative abundance of non-alpine species was greater at lower-elevation summits. Plants used by local Tibetans also increased (+1.3 species/m2 ; +32 plants/m2 ).

CONCLUSIONS: As in other alpine areas, biodiversity is increasing with climate change in the Himalaya. Unlike other areas, endemic species are proliferating at the highest summits and are indicators of change.

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