Warm weather is destroying UK's 'arctic' areas

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The Independent Online
THE FLORA on Britain's highest mountain peaks will disappear within a generation because of global warming, according to new research.

The results, which also mean that populations of several species of birds will be decimated, suggest that some of Britain's best-loved mountain scenery in Scotland will be transformed by 2030. The only way many plant species will be preserved, say some botanists, is if a special "cold house" is built so the almost arctic conditions of the Cairngorms and Ben Nevis can be reproduced.

However, this will not prevent the disappearance from the wild of flowering species such as drooping and tufted saxifrage, several species of sedge, moss and arctic grasses, John Birks, Professor of Environmental Change at University College London, said.

The findings, unveiled by Professor Birks last night during a lecture at Edinburgh University, follow his study looking at the impact the 1C rise in temperature expected in the next 30 years will have on these plants which, because they are already confined to the coldest, highest summits, have nowhere to re-establish.

Earlier this year, Professor Birks's team visited mountains in Norway, whose plant life was documented in 1930 by the botanist Reidar Jorgensen. The conditions and flora on these sites were very similar in those days to the peaks of Britain'shighest mountains today.

Professor Birks said he was "astonished" to discover that in the subsequent 60 years, during which average temperatures have risen by 1C in Norway, the plants present in 1930 had been replaced by willow scrub and heather and could now only be found about 300 metres higher up the mountains. "That is fine for Norway," Professor Birks said, "because the mountains are so high plant life can move up the mountain side, but these plants are already confined to Britain's highest peaks, such as Ben Nevis and the Cairngorms. They have nowhere else to go."

He said that Britain had little choice other than to build a "cold house" mimicking mountain conditions. "We need to follow the example set in Denmark and Denver, Colorado, where they can reproduce conditions for plants that seem to need their feet in the snow if they are to reproduce."

Professor Birks's research also implies devastation for birds now living above the tree line, according to the Government's scientific adviser, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). Breeding pairs of snow bunting, ptarmigan and dotterel will shrink to a tenth or less of their current numbers, predicts Professor Des Thompson, the SNH's principal uplands adviser. "These results suggest global warming will impact even quicker than we expected," he said.

"If temperature change means that everything moves 300 metres higher up mountain slopes, then British birds currently living at 600 metres will find their existing habitat of 4,600 square kilometres will shrink to just 250 square kilometres. That is an alarming prospect and will mean much smaller populations."