The Editor’s Choice for our new issue is Climate warming drives Himalayan alpine plant growth and recruitment dynamics by Dolezal et al. The results of this article provide novel information on population‐specific climate dependency of plant recruitment, growth and population dynamics. Here the handling Editor, Stephen Bonser, provides an overview of the research and highlights the important conclusions drawn by this study.
This paper also provides the cover image for this issue! You can find out more about the image in our new Cover Stories post.
High alpine ecosystems are some of the most impacted by climate change, and understanding how plant populations are impacted by and adapt to rapid and severe climate change is important to predicting if populations persist, shift, or go extinct. These rapidly changing ecosystems will also be pivotal in understanding the impacts of future climate change scenarios in plant ecosystems around the world. High altitude ecosystems are difficult system in which to work, and long-term studies on plant growth and population parameters are rare in these ecosystems. In addition, like in many research areas in ecology, much research in the impacts of climate change on alpine plant populations occurs in European and North American ecosystems. Much less is known about the largest and highest alpine ecosystems such as the Himalayas, and this is a significant knowledge gap.
In this Editor’s Choice article “Climate warming drives Himalayan alpine plant growth and recruitment dynamics”, Dolezal et al. (2021) present the results of a remarkable study on growth and recruitment in high altitude populations of the long lived herbaceous plant Potentilla pamirica in the Himalayas. The morphology of P. pamirica allows assessment of yearly growth rings using a novel herbchronological technique similar to dendrochronology, and the age and yearly growth of individual plants can be accurately assessed. The authors apply this technique to assess patterns of growth and recruitment over 70 plus years in dry steppe, alpine and cold subnival populations, ranging in elevation from 5250m to 5900m. Climate variables experienced by these populations varied over the period of the study (from the 1950’s to 2012), notably with a high temperature anomaly in the 1960’s, and increasing temperatures since the 1990’s.
The effect of warmer temperatures on populations was complex. Warming was associated with greater growth and increased recruitment in higher altitude plants (from alpine and subnival populations). Warming decreased recruitment in plants from the lower altitude Steppe populations. Overall, recruitment was low in populations at the high and low end of the distribution, suggesting that central elevations of the species range have stable or growing populations.
A main conclusion of the study is that, due to the complex impacts of warming across P. pamirica populations, investigations on the impact of climate change on plant performance and population range shifts need to be population specific. This is a daunting conclusion since general predictions on the impacts of climate change on plant populations remains a central goal in ecology. I hold a more optimistic view that general predictions on plant response to climate change in these ecosystems remains an achievable goal. Dolezal et al. (2021) use key interconnected environmental variables such as soil moisture, winter snow depth, and length of the growing season that are related to climate variables to interpret the different impacts of warming on growth and recruitment. These indirect variables likely hold the key to understanding how climate variability impacts plant populations. This study is an important contribution as it presents a long term assessment of climate change on populations in poorly studied very high altitude alpine ecosystems. Together with the growing number of studies in other alpine ecosystems, it should be increasingly possible to make general predictions on the impacts of climate change in alpine ecosystems.
Stephen Bonser Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology
You can read the full article by Dolezal et al. here: Climate warming drives Himalayan alpine plant growth and recruitment dynamics