Unprotected mountains more vulnerable to climate change

May 21, 2018

New research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  reveals for the first time that nearly half of mountain ranges fall short of current conservation targets across all elevations. The planet contains roughly 1,000 mountain ranges that are home to high levels of biodiversity, yet conservation efforts are failing to adequately protect these biodiverse areas for plants and animals, which are being pushed upslope as the climate warms. 

The new finding is surprising, given the common belief that mountains are well-protected. The study, led by Paul Elsen, a David H. Smith Postdoctoral Research Scholar, and coauthored by Adina Merenlender, Cooperative Extension Specialist in ESPM, and Bill Monahan, also notes that roughly three-quarters of the world’s mountain ranges fail to meet conservation targets for half of available elevations. Such gaps in protection over elevation leave mountain species more vulnerable as their ranges move in response to climate change.

“Protecting the full range of elevations within mountain ranges is incredibly important,” said Elsen. “If protected areas only cover a portion of elevation within a mountain range—perhaps a mountaintop, or a river valley—then any species shifting upward or downward in response to changing temperatures would be exposed to unprotected landscapes.”

However, the authors point out that there is cause for optimism. For example, landscapes in Africa and Asia that have a lower level of protective status can, if managed appropriately, harbor native species across the full range of elevations in the future. Ensuring that these areas provide suitable habitat for species would help create ecosystem resilience under the impacts of climate change. The study concludes that future protected areas in mountains should be planned strategically. Otherwise, nearly half of all mountainous area would need to be protected to meet current conservation targets at all elevations.

“By recognizing the importance of protecting elevational gradients, we have an opportunity to look to where protection is lacking, where lands can be better managed for biodiversity conservation, or where new protected areas can be established to better safeguard the unique and diverse plant and animal communities found in mountain ranges,” said Elsen.