Local topography is more important than climate as a determinant of regional alpine plant diversity in southwestern British Columbia




Baldwin-Corriveau, Katharine

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Mountain ecosystems are considered highly sensitive to the impacts of climate change, and are experiencing a magnitude of change that far exceeds global averages, particularly with respect to increases in average temperature and precipitation. As such, scientists are predicting a rapid habitat reduction or even the loss of the coolest climatic alpine zones, thus threatening the continued survival of high elevation specialists. However, many of these ‘doomsday’ predictions are based primarily on models with coarse-resolution changes to atmospheric climate parameters, and do not take into account the potential buffering effects of other environmental gradients known to structure alpine plant communities, related to topography and soils. To assess the accuracy of predictions regarding the state of vulnerability of alpine plant communities to climate change, this thesis examined the relative importance of climate, topography and soils as determinants of regional alpine plant diversity for all species, as well as for forbs, graminoids and woody species separately, in alpine meadows of southwestern British Columbia. Through redundancy analyses and variation partitioning, results show that topography and soils are more important than climate as determinants of regional alpine plant diversity. Within these groups, elevation, slope, soil moisture and mean summer temperature were most significant. Interestingly, precipitation played only a small role, even though the study area spanned a precipitation gradient of over 1200 mm/year. The stronger influence of temperature, especially for woody species beta diversity, supports findings of shrub expansion in arctic-alpine systems. The lower importance of climate as a determinant of regional alpine plant diversity, especially for forbs, the dominant life form in alpine meadow ecosystems, suggests that these productive environments may be more resilient to on-going changes in atmospheric climate conditions than previously believed.



community ecology, plant ecology, species diversity, determinants of diversity, climate change