NI: The functional ecology of alpine systems; a global network

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Lancaster Environment Centre


Mountain ecosystems are found on every continent, and create one of the most dynamic biomes on earth. They are globally significant in that 50% of the of the planet's drinking water comes from mountain ecosystems, 1.2 billion people live within the vicinity of mountains, 24% of the earth's terrestrial landmass is in mountain regions, and mountain ecosystems are attractive landscapes that provide opportunities for rejuvenation, recreation, and cultural services. Not only do we gain these direct benefits from mountainous landscapes, but they are also highly biodiverse ecosystems, with many species found only in the high alpine environment. These biological refuges for rare species are threatened by climate and land-use change, and there are growing observations that mountain summits especially are losing these rare plant species. Despite our knowledge on the biodiversity above-ground, we have scare knowledge on the biodiversity, and indeed the activity, of organisms that live below-ground, in the soil. It is these organisms that maintain nutrients, cycle carbon into soil organic matter, and underpin the sustainability of mountainous regions worldwide, yet threats to these organisms are poorly reconciled. There is therefore an urgent need to understand the nature of below-ground life in alpine environments, and how these organisms may respond to rapid changes in climate, and shifts in land-use.

Aims and objectives
To address this knowledge gap of functional ecology and sensitivity in the global alpine, we will form a new global network of alpine specialists from around the world, to lead a 'global fingerprint' of the activity of soil organisms in alpine regions. We will cut across all the major alpine regions of the world, and carry out analysis of the size and activity of the microbes that live in soil. We will then focus on key locations, to simulate climate extremes, which may threaten these ecosystems, and then measure the impact on soil organisms. Specifically, we will ask:
1. What do we know about the global alpine from the perspective of functional ecology?
a. We will use gathered expertise from the network to probe deeply into the literature and expert knowledge to make a scientific synthesis of our current understanding of this global biome
2. How will alpine soils respond to extreme climate events?
a. We will collect samples from different alpine environments and simulate drought and extreme rainfall events, and measure the impact on soil biology
3. How can we design an experiment that will be globally relevant at exploring climate impacts on alpine ecosystems?
a. We will use output from our global synthesis, plus data from our extreme events experiment, to guide the design of our future experiments addressing key questions.

Potential applications and benefits.
We will use this network to generate new data, giving us insight for the first time on the activity of alpine soil organisms. This information will allow us to understand threats to these ecosystems, ultimately to establish long-term experiments that allow us to see how these ecosystems respond to changes in climate and land-use. Only by working together, can we use our expertise and existing networks to tackle this new and urgent challenge, giving us vital understanding of how best to safeguard these valuable ecosystems so that they continue to provide a harbour for plant and animal biodiversity, and provide us with food, water, timber and a place to live. These data will benefit the scientific community through new knowledge generation, but will also underpin a holistic understanding of the alpine that will contribute to sustainable management. We will also, through our outreach activities, engage with people around to explore functional soil ecology, and initiate a discussion on the threats to our mountains through the 'my mountains matter' platform.

Planned Impact

The main outlined impact in the pathways to impact describes how member of the public will benefit through societal improvements mainly mediated by increased knowledge and awareness of the alpine biome, and mountain ecology in general. In addition to the academic benefits and impact, we describe in the pathways to impact, our outreach activities. There, we will also engage in terms of education and involvement via our citizen science soils assay. This will allow tangible 'hands on' science, that will inspire at least 600 individuals worldwide. The hope is that this will be a springboard to engage further via the website interaction, and the publishing of our media tools and video.

The stakeholder activity will drive impact across conservation, management and sports bodies, and there we will measure impact by reader uptake of disseminated materials, and interactions via social media and website uptake. Given our impact is limited to societal benefit through awareness and education, a strong aspect of our future grant capture will be on translating this knowledge into applied action for management and mitigation of change impacts.


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