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An Unexpected Shift in Treeline Vegetation

[caption id="attachment_3405" align="alignright" width="300"] Photo 1: A map of the GTREE observation network. Image credit: Carissa Brown.Scientists usually aim to collect as much data as possible to help detect pervasive or repeated patterns often hidden by the high variability of individual observations. Drawing strong inference from individual, often anecdotal occurrences can be misleading because it is difficult to know whether the relationships we see can be generalized to other instances. On the other hand, as human beings we seem to learn well from stories of individual events, and these have the power to transform our understanding in ways that may have a bigger impact than reams of data. To me, this is one of the challenges of working as a field ecologist, where there is often a tension between developing strong inferential power by assembling datasets with many observations and developing a deeper understanding of the dynamics unfolding in any one...
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The power of the scientific family

[caption id="attachment_3624" align="alignleft" width="225"] Botanist working on Piz Tomuel in Safiental Switzerland in 2010. Photo: Sonja Wipf/SLF, Switzerland.I was lucky enough to grow up in an academic sense as part of a scientific collaboration that I can call my academic family: the Summit Flora family. Recently, the juiciest fruit of this collaboration was harvested when results from the Summit Flora project were published in Nature (Steinbauer et al. 2018). The analyses, based on 302 botanical resurveys of European mountain summits, show that since the 1870’s the plant species richness on summits has constantly increased. And more strikingly, this increase has accelerated hand in hand with climate warming over the past four decades, the enrichment rate now being five times higher than 50 years ago. Although several studies have suggested the link between warming and the upward migration of alpine species, this is the first time that the role of other potential drivers...
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Addressing Climate Change, Poverty, and Flooding in Malawi

Climate change and its associated impacts continue to ravage Malawi, exacerbating poverty and raising doubts over the ability of the country to attain the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, the country is losing 1.7 percent of its gross domestic product – about USD 22 million (MK 16 billion) – on average every year due to the combined effects of drought and floods.Between 1967 and 2003, the country experienced six major droughts and 18 incidences of flooding, which heavily impacted smallholder farmers. Droughts in 2011-2012 had severe effects on food security in many districts, with approximately 2 million people affected – particularly in the south. The country has also only just recovered from extensive flooding that took place in 2015 and left many lives and livelihoods destroyed; it is estimated that 1,101,364 people were affected, with 230,000...
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Changing the Mountain Picture

[caption id="attachment_3179" align="alignright" width="300"] 'Baron Alexander von Humboldt,' by Julius Schrader. Humboldt chose the Ecuadorian mountains Chimborazo & Cotopaxi for the portrait's background. How do mountain roads and non-native species affect mountain biodiversity? Next year, we will celebrate 250 years since the birth of the German geographer, naturalist, and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Few people had such a strong influence on modern science – and on ecology in particular. One of Humboldt's strongest interests was investigating how species richness and community composition change along elevational gradients. He was obsessed with the idea of climbing all the mountains he came across during his travels, and many of us probably have his famous drawings in mind, in which he noted down all species names and vegetation zones he found from the bottom to the top of each one. However, although the idea of investigating how the number of species varies with elevation is...
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Lagging Behind

Species have been reported to be moving poleward and upward in mountains as a result of climate change. Evidence of this movement is piling up rapidly, and with every passing year the increasing speed at which it is occurring is also becoming apparent. However, new studies reveal that this species movement is often not as straightforward as it first appears.[caption id="attachment_3155" align="alignright" width="300"] Plants and other sessile organism often show a delayed response to climate change. (Northern Scandes, Norway)One might think that as the climate warms, so species will follow. The problem is, a species’ reaction to a change in their environment is not always that fast. They often need some time to adjust and to move towards where the climate is now suitable. This delayed reaction is especially true for sessile species, like plants, that depend almost entirely on seed transportation to travel around.Toward greater understandingThese so-called lags in species...
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Swidden agriculture and the sustainability of mountain agriculture

Among Southeast Asian countries, Laos might be thought "a forgotten country". The reason for this is that it has no major industry other than agriculture and forestry, and it is judged, using UN criteria, to be a developing country. Furthermore, it is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia.More than 80% of the land of Laos is occupied by mountains with an altitude of about 500 to 2,000m. The Annamese Mountains separating Laos and Vietnam and the northern highlands in Laos at the easternmost end of the Alpine-Himalayan orogenic belt were formed by Mesozoic orogenic movement. In these mountain areas, ethnic minorities from the Mon-Khmer and Sino-Tibetan language groups are engaged in subsistence swidden agriculture (shifting cultivation). This is one of the rare regions of the world where traditional swidden agriculture is still being practiced.[caption id="attachment_3029" align="alignright" width="300"] Typical mountain landscape of swidden agriculture in mountainous regions of northern Laos.Swidden agriculture...
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The Tree on Top of the World

“But if you do know what is taught by plants and weather, you are in on the gossip and can feel truly at home. The sum of a field's forces become what we call very loosely the 'spirit of the place.' To know the spirit of a place is to realize that you are a part of a part and that the whole is made parts, each of which in a whole.” - Gary Snyder[caption id="attachment_3019" align="alignright" width="300"] Katie busy doing fieldwork at a Polylepis tree location5:30 AM. 3600 M. Southern Ecuador. The whisper of dawn. I sipped the bitter coffee, my frozen fingers wrapped around the mug’s heat. Around me for miles the high altitude paramo grasslands were bright with a strange light: the night’s full moon (a once-in-a-few-years-super-blue-blood-moon) was setting, and the sun, not yet up, was just beginning to shoulder its crimson way toward the horizon. The grass ridges...
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Lichen persistence and evolution in Drakensberg forest fragments

[caption id="attachment_2937" align="alignright" width="225"] Lichens on a tree.To date, there has been almost no research on lichen biogeography, survival strategies, persistence, and the mechanics of gene flow in South Africa’s ancient Drakensberg mountain landscape. Afromont is therefore preparing to initiate a small study on mountain forest lichens on the Drakensberg escarpment – and the first impression one gains of lichen research is a strong sense of why so few people venture into lichen research!Although prevalent, lichens seem ‘useless.’ You can’t eat them, and most of the time, lichens do not do much at all! They appear plastic, hardly alive, with a quiet metabolic and genetic complexity that is invisible. There is also the role (or non-role) of lichens in the landscape to think about. What can these organisms possibly be contributing in the grand scheme of things? From a research perspective, it is very difficult to know which species one is...
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AFRI-SKY-FOR: Saving African tropical montane forests

 Tropical montane forests are biodiversity rich and unique ecosystems. The montane forests of the Albertine Rift region in Africa, for example, contain around 7500 plant and animal species – over a thousand of which are endemic. Tropical montane forests provide numerous ecosystems services including water, food, timber, and non-timber forest products (firewood, medicinal plants, building materials), they support agricultural systems that underpin regional and lowland food security, and make a significant contribution towards income generation through tourism (such as hiking and the viewing of mountain gorillas). They also play an important role in hazard prevention, climate modulation and carbon sequestration.[caption id="attachment_2913" align="alignleft" width="300"] Mt Kahuzi (3317m) and surrounding mixed-species and bamboo forest, eastern Democratic Republic of CongoForests under threatUnfortunately, tropical montane forests are amongst the most threatened ecosystems on Earth due to the combined effects of climate change, population growth, and land use change. They remain overexploited (logging, poaching, mining, conversion...
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PECSii Conference - Towards a More Resilient World

[caption id="attachment_2900" align="alignright" width="300"] View of the Sierra Juarez above Oaxaca CityIn early November, I had the privilege of attending the second conference of the Program on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECSii) in Oaxaca City, Mexico. For many reasons, the conference ranked among the best I have ever attended. The setting itself encompasses many of the challenges facing mountains and other social-ecological systems:  impacts from climate change, economic transformations, environmental problems and socio-political conundrums, here rooted in the legacies of Zapotec, MIxe, Mixtec and Imperial Spanish civilizations, as well as more recent human societies. PECSii participants came from around the world to present research and explore ideas that highlighted social-ecological predicaments and possibilities for constructive transformation. An Exciting Program [caption id="attachment_2901" align="alignleft" width="300"] City Street Scene - Oaxaca Sculpture in front of the Santo Domingo CathedralThe organizers used creative approaches for each of the components of the program.  We knew we...
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