Aim Assessing potential response of alpine plant species distribution to different future climatic and land-use scenarios.
Location Four mountain ranges totalling 150 km2 in the north-eastern Calcareous Alps of Austria.
Methods Ordinal regression models of eighty-five alpine plant species based on environmental constraints and land use determining their abundance. Site conditions are simulated spatially using a GIS, a Digital Terrain Model, meteorological station data and existing maps. Additionally, historical records were investigated to derive data on time spans since pastures were abandoned. This was then used to assess land-use impacts on vegetation patterns in combination with climatic changes.
Results A regionalized GCM scenario for 2050 (+ 0.65 °C, −30 mm August precipitation) will only lead to local loss of potential habitat for alpine plant species. More profound changes (+ 2 °C, −30 mm August precipitation; + 2 °C, −60 mm August precipitation) however, will bring about a severe contraction of the alpine, non-forest zone, because of range expansion of the treeline conifer Pinus mugo Turra and many alpine species will loose major parts of their habitat. Precipitation change significantly influences predicted future habitat patterns, mostly by enhancing the general trend. Maintenance of summer pastures facilitates the persistence of alpine plant species by providing refuges, but existing pastures are too small in the area to effectively prevent the regional extinction risk of alpine plant species.
Main conclusions The results support earlier hypotheses that alpine plant species on mountain ranges with restricted habitat availability above the treeline will experience severe fragmentation and habitat loss, but only if the mean annual temperature increases by 2 °C or more. Even in temperate alpine regions it is important to consider precipitation in addition to temperature when climate impacts are to be assessed. The maintenance of large summer farms may contribute to preventing the expected loss of non-forest habitats for alpine plant species. Conceptual and technical shortcomings of static equilibrium modelling limit the mechanistic understanding of the processes involved.