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Changing mountains

Posted by on in Science for the Carpathians S4C
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Changing mountains by Dominik Kaim:

We definitely live in interesting times. The dynamics of social and environmental changes in the Carpathians indicates that the mountains will soon much differ from what we are accustomed to. Most of changes we observe (in climate, biodiversity, landscape and societies) are interrelated. One of the outstanding and relatively visible indicators of change is the secondary succession on abandoned agricultural land. In most cases, this is a socially- and economically-driven process that results in rapid landscape transformation toward increased forest cover. Secondary succession occurs in particular in the most remote and unfavourable areas, where agricultural production is no longer profitable.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Gorce_succesion.JPGSecondary succession on a clearing previously used as a pasture in the Gorce Mountains, Polish Carpathians

According to the latest research done within FORECOM Project (Forest cover changes in mountainous regions – drivers, trajectories and implications), secondary succession on agricultural lands is a widespread phenomenon in the Polish Carpathians. Surveys based on detailed airborne laser scanning (ALS) data reveal different stages of succession on more than 30% of the agricultural lands in the commune of Szczawnica, for example. The process was especially visible at former pastures. Thus, a significant contemporary retreat of agriculture is underway in the Polish mountains.


Fig. 1 Vegetation mapping based on airborne laser scanning, the Polish Carpathians, 2012

We know already that widespread secondary succession may lead to many different outcomes. First, it will possibly cause an increase in forest cover in the near future, a positive trend in terms of carbon sequestration and habitat connectivity for large carnivores, for example. At the same time, more trees mean fewer clearings where rich and diverse plant communities can develop. Finally, more forest means landscape homogenisation and a loss of traditional Carpathian landscapes, one of the most important resources in the region. The traditional Carpathian landscape - characteristic mosaic of arable land, pastures and forests - is the result of hundreds of years of co-existence between nature and humans. As recently as one hundred years ago, agriculture was a main source of income for the local population and hence the most widespread form of land use in the area. Today, mountain agriculture has lost its economic significance, allowing forests to re-dominate the landscape. Should we focus on protecting, through agri-environmental schemes, this mosaic of agricultural land and forest to preserve this cultural heritage? Or should we agree that the power of the climate, gravity and soils is sufficient to determine the limits of economically viable agricultural production?

These questions are valid for many mountain ranges in Europe. Practitioners, policy makers and inhabitants would also like to know the scientifically justified answers. Given that many circumstances are interrelated, however, makes giving a single answer difficult. For the Polish Carpathians, possible future scenarios will be prepared within FORECOM. Their aim is to present, the most probable future landscapes in the area. In this context, research focusing on secondary succession in mountains is a perfect example of the relation between actions taken today and their influence on the future. These research results will feed scenario development in FORECOM, ensuring high-quality and reliable answers to the questions asked by various stakeholders.

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