Q&A with Christian Körner: 'There is a great need for advancing basic research'

Mountain flora at Lekkersing in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Photo: John Hogg/World Bank
Oct 2015

Mountain terrain offers surprising benefits for biodiversity conservation.

What kinds of changes in mountain biota - the animals and plants who have their habitats in mountain regions - are being seen in a warming world?

Christian Körner The forest limit and the snowline will move further upslope, reducing the area of naturally treeless alpine terrain worldwide. At 2.2⁰C warming, the climatic treeline will move 400m upslope, and the global mountain forest area will increase by 11%, whereas the alpine land area will decrease by 24 %. The land above the alpine belt, the nival land area, will be reduced to half its current size. For the rich plant and animal world at such elevations, space will get sparser. However, contrary to common belief, the varied topography above the tree limit offers a multitude of short distance ‘escapes’ from too-warm into cooler microhabitats, which makes mountain terrain a particularly safe place for biodiversity conservation. Not surprisingly, under changing climates in the past, species refugia were always associated with mountains. A good reason to care for the conservation of large interconnected mountain regions!

What might this mean for the future of mountains and the people that depend on them for their homes and livelihoods?

Christian Körner In my view, the main implications are hydrological. As glaciers melt, snow duration shortens and precipitation extremes – both drought and flood – will become more frequent. Despite this, the milder temperatures will make life easier in the mountains. Locally, permafrost melting and glacier retreat may exert increased risks of rockfall and mudflow, while the avalanche season gets shorter.

You have a long association with the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA) project, one of the initiatives transitioning into Future Earth. How does this kind of internationally-coordinated project help to advance knowledge on mountain biodiversity?

Christian Körner With close to 1,000 registered partners, GMBA created a novel global corporate identity of the concerned mountain research community, as was so successfully established for the Arctic research community. GMBA popularized themes such as the land use implications of biodiversity and the value of 'mining' biodiversity archives, and provided standards and conventions (mountain definition, definition of elevational belts) that assist global comparison. GMBA also initiated pilot studies of biodiversity assessments in mountains, as will be needed for IPBES, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. GMBA links these activities to international programmes such as DIVERSITAS in the past and now Future Earth.

GMBA is engaging in the Map of Life (MOL) programme to create an online interactive map of the world’s biodiversity. What is GMBA's contribution?

Christian Körner GMBA is providing a digital world map of more than 1000 mountain areas (mountain polygons), each classified by its range of elevations and climatic belts. A computer program will allow the biodiversity research community to search for organisms within climatically defined mountain terrain in each of these mountain polygons. This is a substantial advance over simply using metres of elevation, given the dramatic change of mountain climates at a given elevation across latitudes. This 'mountain portal' will permit global comparisons of the plants and animals present within defined climatic belts.

The mountains of our Future Earth conference aims to set the agenda for collaborative research and action relating to global change and mountain areas. What do you expect to see coming out of the meeting?

Christian Körner First and most importantly, people will realize who is doing what and thus the meeting will facilitate thematic networking and cooperation. The meeting will popularize novel, promising research approaches and create awareness of timely topics. I hope people will return from this meeting with a broad overview of the current state of mountain research. I also hope that the meeting will not become over-dominated by global change questions, because there is a great need for advancing basic research, the foundation of any later application. Personally, I find 'global change' is too often used as a simplistic substitute motive instead of hypothesis testing, based on solid theory. It occurs to me, reflecting on recent conferences, that almost any research in mountain ecology is now justified by reference to global change, on often ill-founded common place assumptions. As if there were no other reasons left to do good research…