Models analyzing how Southwestern plant communities will respond to climate change predict that increases in temperature will lead to upward elevational shifts of montane species. We tested this hypothesis by reexamining Robert Whittaker's 1963 plant transect in the Santa Catalina Mountains of southern Arizona, finding that this process is already well underway. Our survey, five decades after Whittaker's, reveals large changes in the elevational ranges of common montane plants, while mean annual rainfall has decreased over the past 20 years, and mean annual temperatures increased 0.25°C/decade from 1949 to 2011 in the Tucson Basin. Although elevational changes in species are individualistic, significant overall upward movement of the lower elevation boundaries, and elevational range contractions, have occurred. This is the first documentation of significant upward shifts of lower elevation range boundaries in Southwestern montane plant species over decadal time, confirming that previous hypotheses are correct in their prediction that mountain communities in the Southwest will be strongly impacted by warming, and that the Southwest is already experiencing a rapid vegetation change.
Keywords: Southwest; climate change; elevational shifts; montane plants.