Shifts in alpine tundra plant species have important consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem services. However, recent research on upward species shifts have focused mainly on polar and high-latitude regions and it therefore remains unclear whether such vegetation change trends also are applicable to the alpine tundra at the southern edges of alpine tundra species distribution. This study evaluated an alpine tundra region within the Changbai Mountains, China, that is part of the southernmost alpine tundra in eastern Eurasia. We investigated plant species shifts in alpine tundra within the Changbai Mountains over the last three decades (1984–2015) by comparing contemporary survey results with historical ones and evaluated potential changes in the distribution of dwarf shrub and herbaceous species over the next three decades (2016–2045) using a combination of observations and simulations. The results of this study revealed that the encroachment of herbaceous plants had altered tundra vegetation to a significant extent over the last three decades, especially within low and middle alpine tundra regions in Changbai Mountains, China. The herbaceous species would continue shifting upward and expanding while their dwarf shrub counterparts would continue shifting upward and shrinking over the next three decades under the RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5 scenarios. The upward shifts of plant species would not keep up with the rate of climate warming under the RCP 8.5 scenarios. The dominant plant tundra species may transform from dwarf shrubs to herbaceous varieties. The results of this study provide a scientific basis for biodiversity protection under climate change and a reference data set for additional research on alpine vegetation dynamics.
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