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Alpine landscapes under global change

Impacts of land-use change on regulating ecosystem services, biodiversity, human health and well-being (“Healthy Alps”)


      Changes in agricultural practices and policies, low farm income and depopulation of rural areas have resulted in the abandonment of traditionally managed mountainous landscapes globally and across the Alps. Such historic landscapes, e.g. alpine pastures, however, harbour a high biodiversity, attract tourists and may even positively influence human health. Today’s western societies are faced with a growing incidence of poor health because of mental stress and sedentary lifestyles. Natural landscapes are increasingly seen as restorative settings, compensating for negative psycho-physiological effects on humans. The extent of these positive effects, however, may depend on the landscape quality. However, so far restorative research has neglected the role of such mountainous landscapes for human health. In addition, possible linkages between cultural ecosystem services such as human health and well-being, biodiversity, and regulating ecosystem services (pollinator activity, soil decomposition rate, greenhouse gas emission) have never been investigated for such landscapes. Therefore, the ecosystem services of these landscapes cannot be fully considered in political decision making, and in the design of agro- environmental, public health and nature conservation policies and measures. If cultural landscapes of biosphere reserves are specifically effective in providing restorative effects, then such benefits can be used for regional development by exploiting the natural-cultural capital for new health-related commercial offers in a sustainable way, thereby preserving such valuable historic landscapes.

      “Healthy Alps” investigates whether and to what extent

      • regulating ecosystem services, biodiversity, human health and well-being are connected;
      • land-use intensities and land-use abandonment of cultural landscapes have an impact on human health and well-being and that these differently managed landscapes are perceived as restorative by humans;
      • soundscapes are useful tools for measuring linkages between biodiversity and human health.

      Answering these questions is urgently needed because biosphere reserves aim in being a role model for such nature-based health-related offers. Unfortunately, information on such effects is missing while at the same time these traditional landscapes are disappearing. Demonstrating health effects resulting from a stay in biosphere reserves’ landscapes will raise public awareness about the valuable natural-cultural capital of the area, which can assist in supporting the biosphere reserve idea. Findings may also support the role of a biosphere reserve for the well-being of its local residents and visitors.
      To answer these research questions an interdisciplinary team consisting of Austrian and Swiss experts from zoology, ecology, environmental psychology, recreation and landscape planning, and environmental engineering will investigate these relationships between biodiversity, regulating ecosystem services, and human health and well-being in LTSER sites and biosphere reserves across the alpine range (Austria and Switzerland). Within each study region, three alpine pastures with different levels of land-use intensity (intensive, recently abandoned, long-time abandoned) will be selected.

      A rather unique method-mix approach relying on methods from different disciplines such as ecology, environmental psychology and recreation research will be applied. One main methodological approach will be the assessment of soundscapes, a new and innovative tool in measuring biodiversity and recreational quality. We will use grasshoppers’ soundscapes as measures for biodiversity. Additional measures for ecosystem services will be pollinator activity, soil decomposition rate using the newly developed tea bag index, and soil greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Landscape composition surrounding each study site will be assessed.
      A dependent sample of probands will be used for the measurement of short-term, psycho- physiological health-related effects by visiting the sites in a standardised manner. The within subjects variables are (1) results of cognitive tests, (2) emotional well-being and perceived restorativeness and noise, and (3) physiological measures before and after each site visit. High-level noise-monitoring- devices will measure the soundscapes per study site.