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Snow coverage change threatens Arctic biodiversity

24 Oct 2018, 02:30 ( 8 Months ago) | updated: 24 Oct 2018, 02:33 ( 8 Months ago)

DF Report
The long-lasting snow cover is vanishing in northern mountains – will snow buttercup (Ranunculus nivalis) and other Arctic and mountain plants follow. Press Release Photo by Julia Kemppinen.

Many of the plants on northern mountains depend on the snow melting late in spring and summer, according to a study, said a press release issued by Helsinki University and Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE).

The study published in the renowned scientific journal Nature Climate Change, researchers from the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Environment Institute analysed how changes of varying degrees in temperature and snow cover duration will affect the risk for extinction in northern flora.

The results showed that many species of plants can benefit from a warmer climate, but the rapidly receding snow cover may irradicate a large part of the flora in the northern mountains.

Many of these species are already endangered, which makes their conservation especially urgent.

Snow provides shelter from winter extreme events for plants but at the same time it limits the length of the growing season, which prevents more southern plants to establish.

This is why the reduced snow cover may be an even larger threat to the Arctic plants than rising temperatures.

“Though the significance of snow is widely recognised, winter conditions are often ignored when studying the northern and mountainous areas,” said Doctoral Student Pekka Niittynen.

Many Arctic and mountain plants are specialised to grow and flower during very short summer. If snow cover duration shortens and summers lengthen, more southern species benefit and can compete the Arctic species to extinction.

According to the researchers, the climate of northern areas is changing more rapidly than in the rest of the world, and these changes are especially forceful during winter. This makes the presented research all the more significant.

“Our findings show that the changes in northern organism populations may be sudden in future, giving us ecological surprises that are hard to predict, such as fast eradication of populations in some places and the invasion of adaptable species into new places,” says Senior Researcher Risto Heikkinen of the Finnish Environment Institute.

“Many iconic species of the Arctic areas, such as the glacier buttercup, will decrease significantly thanks to the changing snow situation,” said Miska Luoto, professor of natural geography.

Many of the species in the northern mountains only thrive in areas with snowdrifts.

Decreasing drifts will increase the risk for extinction for plants like the snow buttercup, mountain sorrel, and mossplant.