Assessing alpine plant vulnerability to climate change: a modeling perspective


  • Antoine Guisan Swiss Center for Faunal Cartography
  • Jean-Paul Theurillat University of Geneva


climate change, ecological impact assessment, alpine and subalpine belts, plant distribution, statistical modeling, local scale, GIS, GLM, Swiss Alps


The potential ecological impact of ongoing climate change has been much discussed. High mountain ecosystems were identified early on as potentially very sensitive areas. Scenarios of upward species movement and vegetation shift are commonly discussed in the literature. Mountains being characteristically conic in shape, impact scenarios usually assume that a smaller surface area will be available as species move up. However, as the frequency distribution of additional physiographic factors (e.g., slope angle) changes with increasing elevation (e.g., with few gentle slopes available at higher elevation), species migrating upslope may encounter increasingly unsuitable conditions. As a result, many species could suffer severe reduction of their habitat surface, which could in turn affect patterns of biodiversity. In this paper, results from static plant distribution modeling are used to derive climate change impact scenarios in a high mountain environment. Models are adjusted with presence/absence of species. Environmental predictors used are: annual mean air temperature, slope, indices of topographic position, geology, rock cover, modeled permafrost and several indices of solar radiation and snow cover duration. Potential Habitat Distribution maps were drawn for 62 higher plant species, from which three separate climate change impact scenarios were derived. These scenarios show a great range of response, depending on the species and the degree of warming. Alpine species would be at greatest risk of local extinction, whereas species with a large elevation range would run the lowest risk. Limitations of the models and scenarios are further discussed.

Author Biography

Jean-Paul Theurillat, University of Geneva

Centre Alpien de Phytogéographie and Botanical Cener, University of Geneva