Long-term Responses of Mountain Ecosystems to Environmental Changes: Resilience, Adjustment, and Vulnerability

Tinner, Willy; Ammann, Brigitta (2005). Long-term Responses of Mountain Ecosystems to Environmental Changes: Resilience, Adjustment, and Vulnerability. In: Huber, Uli M.; Bugmann, Harald K.M.; Reasoner, Mel A. (eds.) Global Change and Mountain Regions. Advances in Global Change Research: Vol. 23 (pp. 133-143). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands 10.1007/1-4020-3508-X_14

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The steep environmental gradients of mountain ecosystems over short distances reflect large gradients of several climatic parameters and hence provide excellent possibilities for ecological research on the effects of environmental change. To gain a better understanding of the dynamics of abiotic and biotic parameters of mountain ecosystems, long-term records are required since permanent plots in mountain regions cover in the best case about 50 - 70 years. In order to extend investigations of ecological dynamics beyond these temporal limitations of permanent plots, paleoecological approaches can be used if the sampling resolution can be adapted to ecological research questions, e.g. a sample every 10 years. Paleoecological studies in mountain ecosystems can provide new ecological insights through the combination of different spatial and temporal scales. [f we thus improve our understanding of processes across both steep environmental gradients and different time scales, we may be able to better estimate ecosystem responses to current and future environmental change (Ammann et al. 1993; Lotter et al. 1997).
The complexity of ecological interactions in mountain regions forces us to concentrate on a number of sub-systems - without losing sight of the wider context. Here, we summarize a few case studies on the effects of Holocene climate change and disturbance on the vegetation of the Western Alps. To categorize the main response modes of vegetation to climatic change and disturbance in the Alps we use three classes of ecological behaviour: "resilience", "adjustment", and "vulnerability", We assume a resilient (or elastic) behaviour if vegetation is able to recover to its former state, regaining important ecosystem characteristics, such as floristic composition, biodiversity, species abundances, and biomass (e.g. Küttel 1990; Aber and Melillo 199 1). Conversely, vegetation displacements may occur in response to climatic change and/or disturbance. In some cases, this may culminate in irreversible large-scale processes such as species and/or community extinctions. Such drastic developments indicate high ecosystem vulnerability (or inelasticity or instability, for detailed definitions see Küttel 1990; Aber and Melillo 199 1) to climatic change and/or disturbance. In this sense, the "vulnerability" (or instability) of an ecosystem is expressed by the degree of failure to recover to the original state before disturbance and/or climatic change. Between these two extremes (resilience vs. vulnerability), ecosystem adjustments to climatic change and/or disturbance may occur, including the appearance of new and/or the disappearance of old species. The term "adjustment" is hence used to indicate the response of vegetational communities, which adapted to new environmental conditions without losing their main character. For forest ecosystems, we assume vegetational adjustments (rather than vulnerability) if the dominant (or co-dominant) tree species are not outnumbered or replaced by formerly unimportant plant species or new invaders. Adaptation as a genetic process is not discussed here and will require additional pbylogeographical studies (that incorporate the analysis of ancient DNA) in order to fully understand the distributions of ecotypes.

Item Type:

Book Section (Book Chapter)


08 Faculty of Science > Department of Biology > Institute of Plant Sciences (IPS) > Palaeoecology
08 Faculty of Science > Department of Biology > Institute of Plant Sciences (IPS)

UniBE Contributor:

Tinner, Willy, Ammann, Brigitta


500 Science > 580 Plants (Botany)




Advances in Global Change Research


Springer Netherlands




Peter Alfred von Ballmoos-Haas

Date Deposited:

13 Jul 2016 15:23

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 14:57

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