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Early snow melt impacts Alpine plants in Himalayas: study

A recent study in the western Himalayas reveals that when snow melts early, it affects alpine plants in complex ways, influencing

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Early snow melt impacts Alpine plants in Himalayas: study

A recent study in the western Himalayas reveals that when snow melts early, it affects alpine plants in complex ways, influencing traits like leaf composition and resource acquisition strategies. The research, conducted at Rohtang in the Pir Panjal mountain range, focused on eight plant species at different elevations. The region faces challenges from rising global temperatures and changing precipitation patterns.

Snow melt timing impacts alpine plants

Snow melting is a key factor that affects the growth and survival of alpine plants. When the timing of snow melting changes, it can greatly affect the characteristics of alpine plant species by changing the length of the growing season.

In the study published in ScienceDirect, the researcher conducted a field experiment at an alpine site in the western Himalayas region. We studied how eight alpine plant species, which are usually found in snow-bed areas, responded to early snow melting over two years (2019 & 2020).

These species were from different elevations and had different strategies for getting resources. We looked at their functional traits related to leaf economics and physiological performance, and how flexible they were in changing these traits. Our analysis showed that both types of species responded to early snow melting with significant changes in leaf area, dry matter content, thickness, water content, and sugar content.

Snowfall changes impact Rohtang’s alpine ecosystems. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The study found that early snow melting led to a significant increase in the leaf C/N ratio and protein content at both elevations, regardless of the species groups. The ability to change traits was generally low and specific to each species. However, species at higher elevations showed a higher ability to change their leaf protein content than those at lower elevations.

Interestingly, the study found that regardless of their unique strategies for getting resources, species adapted to be more conservative at lower elevations and more acquisitive at higher elevations in response to early snow melting. We concluded that plants at different elevations respond differently to early snow melting. However, species showed the ability to adjust to future environmental conditions in the short term, but they may be vulnerable if their place is taken over by new species that are more flexible and have a better ability to compete.

Study reveals alpine plants’ adaptive potential

Scientists suggest that the study provides valuable insights into the adaptive potential of alpine plants, especially considering the unique characteristics of the Himalayan region. The research highlights the importance of long-term studies due to natural fluctuations in snow cover and growing season length.

Past research on alpine plants and early snow melting mainly looked at changes in things like seed production, plant height, and leaf size. Most of these studies focused on Europe and North America, with only a few looking at regions like the Himalayas. The authors of this study say that understanding how plant communities in different regions respond to climate change is important for protecting biodiversity.

pine plants studied in Sharma et al., 2023.  Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In this study, the researchers found that eight alpine plant species changed their growth strategies when exposed to early snowmelt conditions. For example, they might grow taller or develop larger leaves to survive in conditions where resources are scarce. This was especially true for plants growing at higher elevations.

Plants at lower elevations tried to use fewer resources to survive as environmental stress increased due to early snow melt. However, plants at higher elevations were more tolerant and adaptable than those at lower elevations. The researchers found that different species respond differently to early snow melt at different elevations.

These findings are important because alpine regions are home to many rare and unique plant species that are specially adapted to the current climate. The researchers suggest that climate change could cause shifts in plant communities and threaten the survival of some species.

Rohtang’s ecosystem suffers from climate change

Rohtang, known for its ecological sensitivity, is experiencing ecosystem degradation due to tourism and climate change. Alpine plants in the region are facing challenges like reduced snow, higher temperatures, and early growing seasons. These changes have broader implications, affecting the distribution of mammals and causing shifts in vegetation patterns.

The extension of the growing season due to early snowmelt could have long-term effects on alpine plants. Some species may face challenges like reduced flower production and lower survival rates, potentially leading to shifts in species composition. These changes could impact food security for high-altitude communities that rely on subsistence agriculture and livestock.

While upward shifts in vegetation may offer opportunities for expanding crop diversity, they also lead to increased human-wildlife conflicts and losses in agriculture. Changes in alpine pastures negatively affect livestock, with implications for local food consumption. The study emphasizes the need for conservation and restoration efforts to protect alpine vegetation in the face of climate change.

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