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Cold-loving alpine plants 'at risk'

Cold-adapted alpine plants such as the edelweiss, made famous by Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music, could be lost to future generations, scientists have warned.

They are already being squeezed out of their habitats by plants that thrive in warmer temperatures, it is claimed.

Within a few decades some alpine meadows could disappear altogether, according to the first pan-European study of changing mountain vegetation.

Edelweiss, praised in the song of the same name in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, is specially adapted to the highlife at altitudes of between 6,500ft to 9,500ft. Its snow white, star-shaped leaves are covered in woolly hairs to protect them from the cold.

As long ago as 2003 the WWF conservation charity warned that even a temperature rise of 2C could place sensitive mountain plants in the Alps and other mountain ranges at risk.

Stefan Moidle, climate expert at WWF-Austria, said at the time: "The edelweiss and similarly fragile plants are highly endangered. Global warming is changing natural habitats, but alpine plants cannot move to higher, cooler locations."

The new study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, suggests rising temperatures were having an even greater impact on alpine vegetation than was first thought.

An international team of scientists analysed 897 vegetation samples from 60 different summits in all major European mountain systems. Surveys were called out in 2001 and again seven years later in 2008.

Dr Michael Gottfried, from the Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments (Gloria) programme, said: "We expected to find a greater number of warm-loving plants at higher altitudes, but we did not expect to find such a significant change in such a short space of time.

"Many cold-loving species are literally running out of mountain. In some of the lower mountains in Europe we could see alpine meadows disappearing and dwarf shrubs taking over within the next few decades."

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