“We already have stone pine trees on the peak of Clocher d’Arpette in the massif of Mont Blanc at 2800 meters (9200 ft.) altitude. They are taller than 1.5 meters (5 ft.), that is a significant height, so they could be considered trees,” says Cristophe Randin, research associate at the Center for High Altitude Research (CREA) in Chamonix, France.
Two decades ago such a thing would have been unconceivable whilst today it is a trend in virtually all alpine regions of the world, Randin says. Rising temperatures due to climate change seem to be the cause and, beyond ecological outcomes, they bring about social change, they affect businesses, communities, and, generally, mountain livelihood.
Citizens’ science of climate change is a new and democratic approach to biosphere research. It is a version of big data analysis and it assesses the impact of climate change on thousands of species and their habitats. “The observations on biodiversity can be made by the public; observers that worked for 10 years on gathering data become experts or connoisseurs of different plant or animal patterns, however they do not know statistics or other methodologies,” says Randin. And, he underlines, “this is where PhDs from universities come in and mine the data.”
Citizens’ science and phenology are “in the trend of big data; if you have a big amount of data you will get closer to scientific accuracy and be able to make models for plant reactions to climate change,” says Randin. “It is not leisure, nor a joke; it is accepted by many scientific journals, data collected by citizens can do hardcore science for very long periods of time,” adds Randin taking pride in the 30,000 valuable phenological observations collected in a decade for the project Phenoclim.
“Academic research in ecology is usually temporary and opportunistic: it depends on quick funding, it lasts around 3-5 years, it ignores the cryosphere (over 3000 meters / 9,850 ft. altitude), and it has no continuity. Probably the most notable exception is the research carried out at the University of Colorado at Boulder that spread over four decades,” says Randin.
Just the same, the upward shift of grazers to higher altitudes in the Eastern European mountains is plain climate change adaptation, thinks Randin. And he adds, “in some regions of the Alps the subalpine grasslands are disappearing due to non-use abandonment and the forest is invading. So the availability of open areas for grazing is decreasing at the moment.” Nonetheless, mountain communities in the Alps are far from being dependent on animal husbandry or subsistence agriculture.
“Climate change can be seen as an opportunity. There is an increasing demand for alternative energies and there is a higher productivity of [sustainable] biomass in the forest,“ adds Randin.
*The interview was facilitated by the Alpine Convention during We Are Alps! 2015