Breathless Work in the High Himalayas

Recording vegetation within a sampling grid at the top of a mountain ridge in Yunnan, China. i i

Recording vegetation within a sampling grid at the top of a mountain ridge in Yunnan, China. Fang Zhengong, Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Garden hide caption

itoggle caption Fang Zhengong, Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Garden
Recording vegetation within a sampling grid at the top of a mountain ridge in Yunnan, China.

Recording vegetation within a sampling grid at the top of a mountain ridge in Yunnan, China.

Fang Zhengong, Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Garden
Jan Salick sets a plot boundary line for a plant census, Ruizila, Deqin Country, Yunnan, China.

Jan Salick sets a plot boundary line for a plant census, Ruizila, Deqin Country, Yunnan, China. Fang Zhengong, Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Garden hide caption

itoggle caption Fang Zhengong, Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Garden
Team sampling, Daxueshan, Shangri-La County, Yunnan, China. i i

The team gets to work sampling plants, Daxueshan, Shangri-La County, Yunnan, China. Fang Zhengong, Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Garden hide caption

itoggle caption Fang Zhengong, Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Garden
Team sampling, Daxueshan, Shangri-La County, Yunnan, China.

The team gets to work sampling plants, Daxueshan, Shangri-La County, Yunnan, China.

Fang Zhengong, Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Garden
Ice covers a blossom of Gentiana veitchiorum, Daxueshan, Shangri-La Country, Yunnan, China.

Ice covers a blossom of Gentiana veitchiorum, Daxueshan, Shangri-La Country, Yunnan, China. Fang Zhengong, Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Garden hide caption

itoggle caption Fang Zhengong, Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Garden

While much of the focus on climate change has been on the oceans, an international network of botanists aims to broaden the view — to the tops of the world's highest mountains.

The Vienna-based Global Observation Research Initiative, or GLORIA, is looking at how climate change may be causing changes to vegetation in extreme alpine environments.

High in the mist-shrouded peaks near China's border with Tibet, the team's aim is to record the diversity of plant life to monitor for the effects of climate change.

The team of Tibetan and Chinese scientists is led by an American, Jan Salick, an ethnobotanist from the Missouri Botanical Garden. She's spent a lifetime studying plants and how they're used by different cultures.

Salick braves the thin air, harsh conditions and language barrier because of the incredible diversity of plant life found in the alpine environment of Yunnan Province in China's eastern Himalayas. At the top of one remote peak, the team gets to work cataloging the vegetation they find. The team members barely understand one another, but they do share the common language of botany: Latin.

Their plant census is the heart and soul of the GLORIA project. Teams are documenting vegetation on peaks all over the world, building a baseline to study the effects of climate change. Ten years from now, researchers will come back and resample the same plot.

"The theory is that we will see the most drastic climate change in alpine areas," says Salick. "We know from the fossil records that plants move up and down mountains with changes in temperatures. Some of the highest mountain plants will be pushed right off the mountains — these plants could be threatened by global warming, threatened to the point of extinction."

The situation in the Himalayas is doubly sensitive — medicinal plants collected from these peaks play a significant role in the region's culture and economy.

Botanist Jan Salick's research is supported by National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, which in more than a century has provided nearly 8,000 research grants worldwide. The committee funds everything from primate research to Mayan archaeology to assessing the biological diversity of the deep ocean. The field recording engineer for this series of stories on alpine ecosystems and global climate change was NPR's Leo del Aguila.

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