Manage Mountainous Habitats for Climate Change

Mountainous — high elevation — habitats are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, because species often have no choice but to move to higher elevations. Those species already existing at high elevation habitats may literally run out of space.

Climate Change Impacts: Current and Predicted

Mountainous habitats can be found in eastern, western and Pacific states, including New England, Alaska and Hawaii. Evidence indicates that warming in the mid- to high-latitudes is occurring at two to three times the rate of the global average, which means these systems are facing more extreme warming trends in general. These impacts are especially pronounced in arctic and alpine ecosystems, and ongoing increases in temperature and altered precipitation patterns will affect the strong seasonal patterns that characterize these temperature-limited systems. The impacts of climate change vary based on the location, elevation and species composition, but may include species migration and extinction, reduced snow cover and the earlier arrival of spring, among others.

Observed and predicted climate change impacts on mountainous habitats include:

  • Diminished snowfall and snow cover, as well as a shorter winter season. This may contribute to a greater risk of drought and fire in the summer months, and the loss of snow-dependant recreational activities in the winter months.
  • Earlier spring floods, and/or stronger and more frequent flooding. The overall amount of spring runoff may also decline, as winter snowpacks become smaller.
  • Greater risk of erosion and sedimentation.
  • Species — both plants and wildlife — are already shifting their ranges to higher elevation habitats. Some species may lose a significant percentage of their current range, or may become regionally extinct.
  • Greater risk of disease and insect pests, including the potential for these stressors to shift their ranges into regions where they previously could not survive.

Recommendations for Adaptation

Warmer winters, decreased snowpack and the encroachment of new species all present serious challenges to the plants and animals that rely on high-elevation habitats. Land trusts that are working to manage mountainous habitats for climate change may wish to:

  • Assess vulnerability of habitat(s) to climate change impacts, such as earlier snow-melt, increased fire risk or dryer summers.  Note: these impacts will vary by region and freshwater ecosystem consider scenario planning to optimize stewardship efforts;
  • Determine whether currently protected habitats are likely to shift their range northward, or to higher elevations. If so, consider the feasibility and value of extending the protected area’s boundaries to include this new territory in order to “conserve the stage” for species and ecosystems.
  • If species migration seems likely, look to remove barriers that may impede migration (dams, for example).
  • Increase the overall health and resilience of existing habitats by removing invasive plants, restoring native species, and protecting habitats from development and other stressors.
  • Wherever possible, protect the health of established ecosystem services, such as stream buffers, which may help protect a stream or river from increased erosion of nearby land.
  • Adopt an adaptive management policy to verify that your stewardship interventions are achieving your goals.
  • Support mitigation measures in order to galvanize immediate actions to reduce the potential extent of future climate change today.

Learn More

Additional resources about predicted climate change impacts to mountainous habitats, ecosystems, and wildlife include:

Learn about potential climate change impacts, and identify variables that are relevant to your region or the land types you steward.