The Polar Bear of the Plant Kingdom

When conditions change, plants and animals have three options: to move, to adapt to the changed conditions – or to disappear. The glacier buttercup (Ranunculus glacialis) is the polar bear of the plant kingdom, which can no longer move higher or further north as the climate becomes warmer. 

The glacier buttercup is the world’s northernmost flowering vascular plant. In eastern Greenland, it even grows at the 88th parallel of latitude. It is also Europe’s highest-altitude vascular plant. In the Alps, it even grows at altitudes of 4,350 metres and in the Scandes, at 700-2,370 metres.In Finnmark, the glacier buttercup still grows at altitudes of 1,630 m. In Finland, the glacier buttercup is protected under nature conservation law. 

With global warming, the mountain birch zone has begun to move higher up onto the treeless tops of the fells. The quickly progressing regeneration period increases overgrowth and scrub formation in the vegetation just above the mountain birch zone, and thus affects the survival of plants of the alpine tundra zone. Some northern species, such as the glacier buttercup, are so well adapted to the cold that their metabolism simply cannot tolerate any warming. 

According to a study by U.S. biologist Chris Thomas and colleagues, climate change will shrink the distribution range of these species. If mountain and Arctic glaciers melt, the glacier buttercup will no longer be able to retreat to higher or more northerly habitats. This is particularly obvious for species living in the mountains and fells. Suitable habitats for them will simply disappear. The form of mountains is also such that at an altitude of 2,000 metres, for instance, there is less surface area for growth than at an altitude of 1,000 metres. 

In its 2001 report, the working group of Environment Counsellor Pertti Rassi evaluated climate change as an insignificant threat criterion. And so it seems it was when the report was published. The situation has changed over the past 17 years, however, and now climate change is a recognised threat, especially to the vegetation of the fells. Although, according to a fresh opinion poll by Finland’s Ministry of the Environment, only 24% of Finns saw the extinction of species as a significant threat. It is not only a question of the amount of climate change; its rate is also significant. At present, things are moving too quickly for species to keep up. 

Gardening and park cultivation can create the illusion that the habitat requirements of plants are extremely flexible and that individuals and species have an unlimited capacity to adapt to new conditions. This can give the impression that the species will survive if individuals are not harmed. The habitat requirements of humans are fairly lax, and maybe for that reason it is difficult to imagine that for some other species they may be very tight.

The ecologist Ilkka Hanski reminds us of the illusion created by the individual-centric thinking of humans, which prevents us from understanding that protection of natural diversity is not a question of the life and death of individuals or even the presence of individual threatened species, but a question of the life and death of species lineages. One suitable alpine fell-top is quite sufficient for the needs of one glacier buttercup, but a single glacier buttercup and a single alpine fell-top are passing phenomena. The conditions under which individuals can survive to the end of their lifespan is a completely different matter from the conditions under which species can survive far into the future. Living beings are not born from nothing, but from other living beings by their variety. Only the lineages of such beings are lasting, and these lineages deserve our protection.

Published on the Kone Foundation’s Boldness blog 21.8.2018