Alpine Ecosystems


Of all land area of the globe (about 151 million km2), the alpine life zone covers around 3% or 4.5 million km2, which is one‐third less than the area of the vegetated arctic life zone of North America and Eurasia (largely tundra). The alpine life zone (just as the arctic life zone) is treeless, hence its lower boundary is the climatic, high elevation treeline. Its upper boundary is the upper limit of plant life. Both these boundaries are fragmented and represent gradual transition zones. The alpine zone covers a suite of ecosystems (e.g. grass and shrub heathlands), special microhabitats (e.g. rock crevices and springs) and includes isolated outposts of life.

Keywords: adaptation; altitude; biodiversity; low temperature; mountains; stress

Figure 1.

A comparison of seasonal soil temperature 10 cm below the surface (where most roots occur) under treeline trees and under adjacent alpine grassland. Note the warmer conditions under alpine grassland during the growing season. Examples from the Swiss Alps and Mexico.

Figure 2.

Respiratory and growth metabolism (G) are much more sensitive to low temperature than the assimilatory metabolism (D, photosynthesis). Although photosynthesis reaches 10–25% of its maximum capacity already at freezing point (starting to become positive at 25°C) and 30–50% at 15°C, no or hardly any growth (i.e. carbon investment) occurs at such low temperatures, which plants may experience every night and during many days of bad weather. This causes plants of cold climates to be limited by their ability to build new tissue (sink activity) rather than by the production of new building material (photosynthesis, source activity).

Figure 3.

Plant species numbers decline with elevation. This reduction parallels the reduction of available land area with elevation. Reproduced from Körner, .



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Further Reading

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Bowman WD and Seastedt TR (eds) (2001) Structure and Function of an Alpine Ecosystem – Niwot Ridge, Colorado. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ives JD and Barry RG (eds) (1974) Arctic and Alpine Environments. London: Methuen.

Miehe G (1989) Vegetation patterns on Mount Everest as influenced by monsoon and fohn. Vegetatio 79: 21–32.

Nagy L, Grabherr G, Körner Ch and Thompson DBA (2003) Alpine biodiversity in space and time: a synthesis. In: Nagy L, Grabherr G, Körner Ch and Thompson DBA (eds) Alpine Biodiversity in Europe. Ecol Studies 167, Berlin: Springer Verlag.

Rundel PW, Smith AP and Meinzer FC (eds) (1994) Tropical Alpine Environments. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Stone PB (ed) (1992) The State of the World's Mountains: A Global Report. London: Zed Books Ltd.

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Körner, Christian(Dec 2007) Alpine Ecosystems. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003492.pub2]