Close to Perth, we stumbled upon a beautiful castle called Scone Palace (yes, written like the tea-time cakes but no, not pronounced in the same way). It is a place filled with history, proud of hosting the hill that has seen ample Scottish coronations, and with centuries worth of stories to tell.
While roaming through Scotlands’ history in this beautiful castle and its gardens, my thoughts wandered off to the history of mountain ecology.
And, I had to admit, we are quite lucky on that account. My favourite presentations at the Perth conference on Mountains of our Future Earth were those were we could finally start speaking of long-term data and were temporal changes became apparent through consistent observation.
There are those brave data miners that delve deep into history towards the records of the heroes of the twentieth century: botanists that recorded plant species occurrences in hundreds of mountains. Some of them minutiously recording every detail, some of them might have been a bit sloppy, some of them were more trustworthy than others, but all of them together provide a large mountain of data on how the alpine world might have looked like more than 50 years ago.
If you could find back their plots (or create new plots on a similar location) and resurvey the plants that grow there, you get an idea of what has changed in the mountains over this significant period of time. This approach at the moment provides some fascinating insights: plants moving upwards with climate change, but not yet falling from the top, species richness increasing at the highest elevations, and a set of species with similar traits turning out as the big winners.
It will be tremendously fascinating to follow these historical efforts in the future, until that other type of long-term data collection gets in full swing: observational plots deliberately set up to be resurveyed in the future, and datasets growing one (or several) years at a time.
Some of the most interesting plots set up in this manner are now almost turning 15 years old, and all over the world, time series are getting longer (and patterns thus clearer).
This is definitely a fascinating time to be a mountain ecologist, building upon a growing history and aiming for the future. Global change is incredibly hard to understand and predict, but with the joint effort of hundreds of devoted scientists, we are actually answering more questions than I would have ever expected.