The tempo of greening in the European Alps: Spatial variations on a common theme

Glob Chang Biol. 2021 Nov;27(21):5614-5628. doi: 10.1111/gcb.15820. Epub 2021 Sep 3.


The long-term increase in satellite-based proxies of vegetation cover is a well-documented response of seasonally snow-covered ecosystems to climate warming. However, observed greening trends are far from uniform, and substantial uncertainty remains concerning the underlying causes of this spatial variability. Here, we processed surface reflectance of the moderate resolution imaging spectroradiometer (MODIS) to investigate trends and drivers of changes in the annual peak values of the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). Our study focuses on above-treeline ecosystems in the European Alps. NDVI changes in these ecosystems are highly sensitive to land cover and biomass changes and are marginally affected by anthropogenic disturbances. We observed widespread greening for the 2000-2020 period, a pattern that is consistent with the overall increase in summer temperature. At the local scale, the spatial variability of greening was mainly due to the preferential response of north-facing slopes between 1900 and 2400 m. Using high-resolution imagery, we noticed that the presence of screes and outcrops locally magnified this response. At the regional scale, we identified hotspots of greening where vegetation cover is sparser than expected given the elevation and exposure. Most of these hotspots experienced delayed snow melt and green-up dates in recent years. We conclude that the ongoing greening in the Alps primarily reflects the high responsiveness of sparsely vegetated ecosystems that are able to benefit the most from temperature and water-related habitat amelioration above treeline.

Keywords: European Alps; NDVI; climate change; greening; mountain ecosystems; remote sensing.

MeSH terms

  • Climate
  • Climate Change
  • Ecosystem*
  • Satellite Imagery*
  • Seasons