Alpine plants face ‘bleak future’ in adapting to warmer climate

Michael Weaver 27 May 2021 12
Alpine snow daisies in Kosciuszko National Park

Snow daisies in Kosciuszko National Park that are facing an increase in temperatures due to climate change. Photo: Mike Bremers.

Native alpine plants in Kosciuszko National Park are not keeping pace with rapid changes in the environment, according to a study by a PhD research scholar at the Australian National University.

The study, funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects, honed in on herbarium (preserved) specimens from 21 native alpine plant species, making more than 1500 measurements of plant size, leaf thickness, mass and shape from the past 126 years.

Only two of the 21 species showed significant changes in any of the measured traits.

Lead author Meena Sritharan said her study, published in Ecology and Evolution, found that 20 species were not responding to warming conditions.

“We predicted leaves would become thicker as this would be advantageous if plants were facing longer growing seasons and increasing temperatures,” she said.

“Our findings suggest native alpine plants may not be adapting to the substantial local climate change occurring in Australian alpine regions.”

Another study, published in 2009 in Australian Journal of Botany, identified an increase in mean annual temperature of 0.74 degrees Celsius between 1950 and 2007 in Australia’s subalpine and alpine zones.

“Australian native alpine plants face a bleak future in the face of rapid climate change,” said Ms Sritharan.

PhD scholar Meena Sritharan

PhD scholar Meena Sritharan led the research project into Australia’s native alpine plants . Photo: Supplied.

Only one species, star plantain (Plantago muelleri), showed it was adapting to warmer conditions by displaying an increase in plant size.

A second plant, cascade everlasting (Ozothamnus secundiflorus), showed evidence of a change in plant traits, but it decreased in leaf thickness during the 125-year time period.

The study also ruled out changes expected by chance alone, based on an earlier study using the same methods that found significant changes in 70 per cent of species introduced to southeast Australia.

“Australia’s native alpine plants do not appear to be adapting to changed conditions, and because of the low elevation of Australia’s mountains, they do not have much scope for uphill migration,” said Ms Sritharan.

“Thus our findings suggest Australia’s native alpine plants are at even greater risk in the face of future climate change than was previously understood.”


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The point of the study was to gauge whether alpine plants in the southern hemisphere had changed in morphology, or their physical form, over time in response to climate warming.

Ms Sritharan said the 21 alpine plants exist in one of the ecosystems known to be least resistant to the effects of climate change.

Other plant species studied include the cushion caraway (Oreomyrrhis pulvinifica), alpine rice flower (Pimelea alpine), carpet heath (Pentrachondra pumila) and snow aciphyll (Aciphylla glacialis).

“Alpine environments are facing higher than average increases in temperature in the last century,” said Ms Sritharan.

“But rapid changes in the environment can promote rapid changes in species.

“Consequently, we expected that a rapid increase in temperature would result in a change in the plant traits we measured, such as size and leaf shape.

“These changes in plant traits would suggest that alpine plants may be changing in response to a changing climate.”

Ms Sritharan said the study findings are surprising because the results are contrary to what they expected and what species in the northern hemisphere are facing.

She said plants in the northern hemisphere are changing substantially and adapting to changed environmental conditions.

Next summer, researchers from the University of NSW’s Evolution & Ecology Research Centre will conduct heatwave experiments to measure how Australian alpine plants respond to an increased duration of heatwaves, which is what climate researchers forecast for the future.


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12 Responses to Alpine plants face ‘bleak future’ in adapting to warmer climate
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jwinston jwinston 8:22 am 31 May 21

To all the scholars, students and researchers making money from climate change: Man made climate change is not a thing.

    Mikey Moore Mikey Moore 1:03 pm 31 May 21

    “scholars, students and researchers making money” HAHAHAHA

    paulmuster paulmuster 9:08 pm 31 May 21

    Completely agree – I wouldn’t call it a ‘thing’ either. It is probably better described as a process.

    jwinston jwinston 6:46 am 01 Jun 21

    Ok – it’s a process. A process that has happened again and again over 4 billion years. Climate change is not man made!

Acton Acton 7:21 am 30 May 21

Her hypothesis that plants would adapt to climate change was proven wrong by the evidence that the plants had not changed. From these results a good scientist would have then questioned the validity of their hypothesis, concluded the experiment challenged the claimed severity of climate change and also known that evolution and adaptation does not occur over such a short time as the study analysed. Instead she drew a false conclusion that supported a pre-existing mindset. Fail. Fail. Fail.

    Mikey Moore Mikey Moore 1:08 pm 31 May 21

    Perhaps if they only took into account the data they themselves produced. They would also have to ignore the section (and subsequent referenced studies) demonstrating morphological adaptations observed in Northern hemisphere species…which a good scientist wouldn’t do.

    paulmuster paulmuster 9:06 pm 31 May 21

    Fascinating – if that was a valid argument, how do you think this research passed the peer review process?

    Have you contacted the journal (ecology and evolution) to pass on your insights?

rocca66 rocca66 7:56 pm 29 May 21

Usual alarmest approach from the ANU.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 4:17 pm 29 May 21

I could not find the words “bleak future” anywhere in that article. I may have missed it as I am not as comfortable with reading screens as I am with newspapers so, who is the alarmist who added it in.

In fact, the researcher confirms that climate change is happening continually.

The only thing “bleak” is the temperature – I just drove through Nimitabel where it is 6 degrees.

    paulmuster paulmuster 9:12 pm 31 May 21

    Yep you missed it – its in the paper (which the author has linked to). Sounds like you’ve also missed the class explaining the difference in weather and climate!

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:54 am 01 Jun 21

    I’ve missed a lot of things in my life including seeing the climate actually change (which is an ongoing imperceptible process). If warming is caused by increases in carbon dioxide levels then how can we control volcanic emissions?

    And I didn’t miss “bleak future” in the article because it wasn’t there.

    paulmuster paulmuster 5:24 pm 02 Jun 21

    Well, you did miss ‘bleak future’ because it is the last two words in the discussion. The fact that it is in inverted commas in the heading makes it pretty obvious that the author is referencing the research, not their own article.

    As for volcanoes – you might find the resource below useful. It shows how emissions from volcanoes are around 1% of human emissions. As for controlling volcanic emissions – there would be no need if we could mitigate human emissions from burning fossil fuels as the natural cycles of emissions and sequestration would be moved closer to being in balance.

    Just as a side note – imperceptibility and impact are rarely related – hence why poisoning people works (they tend to not know they took the poison until its too late!)

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