10 messages for 2010 — mountain ecosystems


Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

Key messages

- European mountain regions provide essential ecosystem services for lowlands and host a great diversity of habitats and species, many adapted to specific extreme climatic conditions.

- Mountain ecosystems are fragile and vulnerable, and face severe threats from land abandonment, intensifying agriculture, impacts of infrastructure development, unsustainable exploitation and climate change.

- Frameworks for cooperation are the basis for sustainable mountain management and development in Europe. Long-term success depends on detailed implementation at regional and local levels.

1. European mountain regions provide essential ecosystem services for lowlands

1.1 Mountain ecosystem goods and services provided

Mountain ecosystems play a key role in the water cycle for lowland regions in Europe. They influence temperature and precipitation, and modulate the runoff regime. Water from both rain and snow is stored in mountain vegetation and soils and
then gradually released. It transports sediments downstream, providing nutrients for lowland areas, replacing fluvial and coastal sediments, and contributing to groundwater recharge in lowland areas.

Mountain ecosystems contribute to preventing and mitigating natural hazards such as landslides and avalanches. They maintain ecological processes and provide goods and services not only to mountain people but also in lowlands where demand from population centres, agriculture and industry is high (Regato and Salman, 2008; Table 1.1).

Ensuring the continued delivery of such services requires careful management of these delicate ecosystems. For example, the massive carbon store laid down over thousands of years in mountain peatlands and organic mountain soils is not only an essential part of rare and threatened peatland habitats but also a potentially huge source of further climate warming if not managed appropriately.

1.2 Habitat and species diversity in European mountains

Ranging from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and experiencing climates from the oceanic to the continental, Europe's mountain ecosystems are highly diverse and cover 36% of the continent, including 29% of the European Union (EEA, 2010). Across the continent, forests cover 41% of the area of mountain ecosystems and over half of the area of the Carpathians, the mountains of central and south‑east Europe, the Alps, and the Pyrenees.

As a result of sharp altitudinal gradients in both temperature and precipitation, habitat and species diversity are generally higher in mountain areas than in lowlands (Regato and Salman, 2008). Mountain grasslands, for instance, show remarkable biodiversity, which is comparable to certain types of tropical rainforests (EEA, 2002). To a large extent, this biodiversity derives from centuries of intervention by people and their grazing animals; if grazing or mowing decreases below a certain level, many of these species are lost as plants of higher stature take over (Nagy and Grabherr, 2009).

Although alpine areas above the treeline cover only 3% of Europe's land surface, they host 20% of its native vascular plant species. It is estimated that there are more than 2 500 species and subspecies of alpine flora confined to or predominantly occurring above the treeline. The proportion of species restricted to the alpine zone varies from less than 0.5% of the total flora in Corsica to about 17% in the Alps (Nagy et al., 2003). Numbers of vascular plants decrease from south to north, whereas numbers of cryptogams (bryophytes and macrolichens) show the opposite trend (Virtanen et al., 2003).

Species endemism, in particular, often increases with altitude within mountain regions, partly due to the isolation of populations and speciation processes over geological time scales (Regato and Salman, 2008; Nagy and Grabherr, 2009; Schmitt,
2009). For example, the Caucasus ecoregion has the highest level of endemism in the temperate world, with over 6 500 vascular plant species, at least 25% of which are unique to the region (Wilson, 2006). In the rest of Europe, the highest number of endemics and narrow range taxa are found in the Alps and the Pyrenees, with high numbers also in the Balkan mountains, Crete and the Sierra Nevada, the Massif Central, Corsica, and the central Apennines (Väre et al., 2003).

The mountain regions of the Iberian peninsula (excluding the Pyrenees) show a particularly high number (64) of endemic Species of Community Interest listed in Annexes II and IV of the EU Habitats Directive, followed by the Balkans (24). For individual massifs, the highest number of Species of Community interest is found in the Alps (24 endemic species), followed by the Carpathians (18). The highest number of mountain Species of Community Interest on islands are found on the Canary Islands (30) (ETC/BD, 2010; Figure 1.1).

Mountain areas are also at the heart of Europe's remaining wilderness areas. Maps 1.1 and 1.2 show that Annex 2 (Habitats Directive) species are located in wilderness areas protected under the Natura 2000 network. Many of these are mountain areas.

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