Observed long-term greening of alpine vegetation—a case study in the {French} {Alps}

We combined imagery from multiple sources (MODIS, Landsat-5, 7, 8) with land cover data to test for long-term (1984–2015) greening or browning trends of vegetation in a temperate alpine area, the Ecrins National Park, in the context of recent climate change and domestic grazing practices. We showed that over half (56%) of the Ecrins National Park displayed significant increases in peak normalized difference vegetation index (NDVImax) over the last 16 years (2000–2015). Importantly, the highest proportional increases in NDVImax occurred in rocky habitats at high elevations ({\textgreater} 2500 m a.s.l.). While spatial agreement in the direction of change in NDVImax as detected by MODIS and Landsat was high (76% overlap), correlations between log-response ratio values were of moderate strength (approx. 0.3). In the context of above treeline habitats, we found that proportional increases in NDVImax were higher between 1984 and 2000 than between 2000 and 2015, suggesting a slowing of greening dynamics during the recent decade. The timing of accelerated greening prior to 2000 coincided with a pronounced increase in the amount of snow-free growing degree-days that occurred during the 1980s and 1990s. In the case of grasslands and low-shrub habitats, we did not find evidence for a negative effect of grazing on greening trends, possibly due to the low grazing intensity typically found in the study area. We propose that the emergence of a longer and warmer growing season enabled high-elevation plant communities to produce more biomass, and also allowed for plant colonization of habitats previously characterized by long-lasting snow cover. Increasing plant productivity in an alpine context has potential implications for biodiversity trajectories and for ecosystem services in mountain landscapes. The presented evidence for long-term greening trends in a representative region of the European Alps provides the basis for further research on mechanisms of greening in alpine landscapes.


Observed long-term greening of alpine vegetation—a case study in the {French} {Alps}
Publication Type
Journal Article
Year of Publication
Environmental Research Letters
Date Published
CNRS, Lautaret
Submitted on 21 October 2021