Alpine Plants Respond to Climate Change


Researchers from ETH Zurich are studying how alpine vegetation is responding to a warming climate – and how some plant communities are continuing to stand firm against newcomers from lower elevations.

A glance down the vertiginous slope is enough to create a dizzying sensation of being airborne. Far below is the city of Chur, with tiny cars beetling among toy houses. Keeping a firm grip on the wheel, Jake Alexander ascends the potholed road, which in many places is too narrow for two vehicles to pass.

His destination is Chrüzboden, an alpine meadow situated above the tree line on the Haldenstein peak of the Calanda massif, some 2,000 metres above sea level. It’s a popular day trip from Chur, but Alexander is here in his role as Assistant Professor of Plant Ecology at ETH Zurich. For the past 15 years or so, he has been conducting experiments to better understand the effects of climate change on alpine flora.

Calanda is the perfect location for this kind of research. Over the space of 5 kilometres, it encompasses the full range of altitudinal vegetation zones in the Alps, from the colline zone on the valley floor to the alpine belt at its 2,800-​metre peak. The entire massif is remarkably uniform in both aspect and geology – and the whole area lies within easy reach of Zurich. “We should really set up an alpine research station here; that would be fantastic!” Alexander says.

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Image via ETH Zurich