Europe's mountains: rich in biodiversity but increasingly vulnerable

News Published 27 Jul 2010 Last modified 21 Jun 2016
2 min read
Snow-capped peaks, rocky inclines, rich forests and sloping meadows provide recreation and economic opportunities for humans and a home to many plants and animals. The European Environment Agency's new assessment of mountain ecosystems sheds light on their state and the pressures they face.

Mountain ecosystems are essential for regulating our climate and water cycles. Increasingly, however, they are threatened by land abandonment, intensification of agriculture, infrastructure development, unsustainable exploitation and climate change. Eighth in the series of '10 messages for 2010', the EEA's new assessment on mountain ecosystems indicates that managing mountains sustainably relies on effective policies and actions at regional and local levels.

Mountain ecosystems cover 36 % of the continent (29 % of the European Union). Around 40 % of this area is forested. Compared with lowlands, the variation in altitudes, temperatures and precipitation have resulted in a richer variety of plant and animal species in mountains.

Key pressures and policies

  • Intensified agriculture and land abandonment: in lower altitudes, non-intensive traditional farming has created and maintains semi-natural habitats, supporting a wide range of grassland species. More than half of Europe's High Nature Value farmland, typically associated with low-intensity agriculture and grazing, is found in mountain areas. Any change to agricultural intensity threatens such habitats and species. Land abandonment occurs across the EU and threatens ecosystems such as grasslands, which are highly dependent on human management.
  • Climate change: average temperatures increased by approximately 2 degrees in the Alps between the late 19th century and early 21st centuries. This is twice the average rate in the Northern hemisphere and has caused a significant decrease in glacier volume. Higher temperatures also mean less snow and more rain in the winter, resulting in more runoff in winter and less in spring and summer. Where they are able to move uphill or northwards, flora and fauna can retain the bioclimatic conditions to which they are adapted. For mountain plant species, however, migration is obviously more difficult and more than half could face extinction by 2100.
  • Infrastructure development: construction of highways and motorways increases the fragmentation in mountain areas, isolating and limiting the movement of many species. In certain locations, the development of skiing infrastructure can make soil more vulnerable to water erosion.
  • Unsustainable exploitation: Fuel wood harvesting and timber trade in the Caucasus mountains irreversibly reduce both biodiversity and the goods and services on which local people depend. Hunting and poaching of rare and endangered species in the Carpathians have reduced populations, threatening their long-term viability. Mass tourism often favours the introduction of invasive alien species.
  • Policy frameworks: international and regional agreements and processes, including the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Alpine Convention, indicate that there is adequate recognition at the European level of the need for international cooperation. It is important to consider which policies have been successful at regional and local levels.



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