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Mapping Mont Blanc's changing Nature

Chamonix is fortunate to be home to the highly regarded Centre for Research into Altitude Ecosystems, CREA for short. CREA leads research into alpine ecology and has just launched the fascinating scientific Atlas Mont Blanc.

CREA's founder and Director, the ecologist Dr Anne Delastrade, began working in the Chamonix Valley with a study of alpine choughs.

Dr Anne Delastrade and the CREA team

Dr Delastrade went on to found CREA and the organisation has gone from strength to strength. CREA leads and coordinates research into the different alpine ecosystems: alpine meadows, scree, glaciers and forests and the plants and animals living in them. Highly specialised, these plants and animals are very sensitive to the influences of humans so studying these species gives us insights into man's impact on the environment.

Alpine Newt

Living in the extreme mountain climate continually challenges the plants and animals that make the Alps their home. A number of CREA's studies look at the way specfic plants and animals, and the relationships that connect them, adapt and respond to this demanding life. Through the study of seasonal timings and the rhythm of yearly growth cycles, such as the dates that particular trees flower or come into bud or the return of migratory birds to the Alps CREA is leading research into the effects of climate change on alpine plants and animals. How will species adapt? What are the consequences of climate change for these plants and animals? And how will the future look in terms of the alpine environment?

Great Tit chick

As one example, animals and birds seem to respond to light levels and day length at the change of the seasons whereas invertebrates respond more to temperature. A loss of synchronisation between the two may have a huge impact. So if insect larvae and caterpillars are delayed by late Springs or if early Springs mean that catepillars have flown as mature insects by the time chicks hatch, nesting birds have nothing on which to feed their young.

CREA study nestbox

Public participation in science: CREA says: "Research cannot be carried out independent of our society....CREA is committed to weaving connections between the scientific world and the general public". As a result of this comittment I was lucky enough to spend a day out with the CREA team and some of their colleagues from around Europe.

Group with Mont Blanc in the background

There is also the opportunity for members of the public to contribute to the research. If you live in the Alps you may help with programmes which look at:

  • the response of plants to climate change in alpine ecosystems
  • the effects of climate change on the annual migration of birds to the Alps
  • the effect of climate change on plants and animals at each level within an ecosystem
  • population biology and social behaviour

Members of the public contributed almost 8000 entries in 2007.

The newest development is the fascinating Atlas Mont Blanc, launched in 2013. Coordinating extensive research by scientists in France, Italy and Switzerland this superb resource is being brought together by the CREA team. The Atlas Mont Blanc draws together findings from glaciology, climatology and biodiversity studies from all around the Mont Blanc massif. The result is funky and interactive mapping, graphs and images of rigorous scientific work which help us appreciate the "dynamics of natural habitats and glaciers of Mont Blanc, under the close influence of climate."

Mont Blanc from the alpage de Loriaz

This mountain range has been the subject of study since the 1800s, so the bringing together of a wealth of data into a single place is enabling scientists to develop models to predict the development of a mountain range for the very first time.

Accessible to everyone and available for mobile devices, I'll be able to use the cool interactive mapping and images whilst walking in the Mont Blanc range with clients this summer. I really do recommend taking a look at Atlas Mont Blanc.