Plant species in lowland forests appear to respond too slowly to climate change, making them especially vulnerable in the decades to come, according to a study by researchers at AgroParisTech, INRA, the University of Aarhus (Denmark), CNRS, the University of Strasbourg and the French National Forest Inventory, published in last October's issue of Nature. The study was funded in part by ADEME and the Lorraine Regional Council. Scientists' concerns previously focused on mountain plant species, as they were considered as more likely to be impacted by climate change. A 2008 study by AgroTechParis, INRA and CNRS researchers reported the upward migration of mountain plant species following temperature rises. However, when scientists compared changes in plant species compositions in lowland and alpine communities, they observed a greater degree of inertia in the former variety, making them more vulnerable to climate change.
According to the researchers, three main factors explain the lack of reactivity in lowland plant species. One, the species tolerate hotter temperatures - therefore, climate warming - better. Two, they undergo greater habitat fragmentation than alpine forest species, i.e. roads, residential areas and farmlands prevent lowland species from migrating. Their dispersal abilities (mainly via wind and animals) are sometimes unable to overcome these obstacles. Three, the most alarming factor is the distance a new generation must cover to find a climate where it can thrive. While mountain species must migrate an average of 1.1 km, mainly toward mountain tops, to compensate for warmer temperatures, lowland species must migrate north over greater distances to cope with similar temperature increases (an average of 35.6 kilometers). Given that short-distance escapes rarely exceed a few hundred meters per year, herbaceous forest plant species have trouble coping with temperature increases in lowland areas via natural migration. This explains scientists' justified concern about the climate-flora balance in the lowlands, which already seems broken.