Climate change and variations in mountain pasture values in the central-eastern Italian Alps in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

Marco Avanzini, MUSE — Museo delle Scienze

Isabella Salvador, University of Trento, Department of Economics and Management

Geremia Gios, University of Trento, Department of Economics and Management

The consequences of ongoing climate change are the subject of an increasing number of scientific studies (IPCC, 2014). In particular, the interaction among climatic factors, agro-forestry systems and ecosystem productivity is currently being investigated using a variety of tools (Baglioni et al., 2009; Bosello and Zhang, 2005; Roson, 2003; Solomon, 2007). The aim is generally to obtain an economic assessment of variations in well-being due to changes in the environments where agriculture is practiced (e.g., Palatnik and Nunes, 2010).

In fact, in the Alps: a) climate imposes very clear limitations on soil productivity; b) the history of locations bears clear evidence of variations in climate; c) for many centuries the development of communities has been strongly conditioned by agricultural productivity, which in turn is correlated with climate evolution (Mathieu, 2000, p.127). In the southern Alps in particular, the traditional organisational structures of communities were such that private property was located near the villages and common pastures and meadows in the mountains (Raffaelli, 2005). This type of organisation reflected the fact that development of the local communities was to a large extent dependent on resources that could be generated locally.

Unlike the fields close to the villages, pastures and woodlands could be exploited with low fixed investments and represented a reserve of resources that could be adjusted relatively quickly in the case of rapid increases or reductions in anthropic pressure. From this perspective, the Alps are an ideal testing ground for measuring the economic consequences of climate change (Dearing 2006; Fraser 2009; Pfister and Brazdil 2006; Theurillat and Guisan, 2001). Alpine pastures represent one of the most complex and interesting study cases. Forage productivity and quality in areas given over to pasture are closely linked to environmental factors, such as soil temperature, fertility and moisture (Baglioni, et al. 2009; Bosello and Zhang, 2005; Menzel and Fabian, 1999; Roson, 2003).

Alpine pastures are characterized by a rapid growth in productivity in spring and summer followed by a period of gradual decline and decreasing quality. There is now an extensive body of scientific literature on the effects of temperature on productivity trends in Alpine pastures (Cavallero et al. 1992; Gusmeroli et al., 2005; Orlandi et al., 2004; Ziliotto and Scotton, 1993;), although there has not always been general consensus on the nature of the variability (Orlandi and Clementel, 2007). All of the studies agree, however, that pasture productivity is closely related to natural constraints and particularly to temperature variation, which, in the mountains more than anywhere else, has a direct effect on the vegetative cycle and the productivity of herbaceous vegetation.

In other words, it seems to be clear that the productivity of mountain land varies over time in response to trends in temperature, with consequent fluctuations in its economic value. In the Alps, spring temperature appears to be particularly important for total grass production. Indeed, it is well known that the growth of grass depends on accumulated temperature (day degrees); as a consequence, the spring temperature determines whether herds are taken up to the mountain pastures earlier or later (Gusmeroli et al, 2005). Summer temperature, on the other hand, appears to be less important in the Alps, so that the end of the grazing season, unlike the beginning, is traditionally set for a fixed date (20 September), at least in the area examined here (Bussolon, Martini, 2007).

As far as precipitation is concerned, the climate regime in the entire Alpine area has a winter minimum (under the influence of the Russo-Siberian anticyclone in the cold months) followed by a maximum between spring and autumn. The study area in particular has a pre-Alpine type of climate regime with an autumnal maximum slightly higher than the spring maximum. Areas with a pre-Alpine climate are more influenced than others by their geographical proximity to the Po plain, which places few obstacles in the way of humid air masses. Spring precipitation in these areas is always abundant and, unlike in south-central Italy, no significant fluctuations are evident in the available historical series (Buffoni et al., 2003). As a result, the precipitation regime has had less influence on the modifications in the seasonal productivity of pastures in these regions.The mountains of the Italian pre-Alps studied here have been exploited at least since the sixteenth century. The pastures are part of a system based on vertical transhumance whereby livestock spend the summer on higher Alpine pastures (Salvador and Avanzini 2014).

Against this background, the aim of this study is to investigate variations in pasture lease rents during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and how these correlate with climate changes. In analysing the relationship between climate variation and the value attributed to the pasture areas, account has been taken of natural and socio-economic factors, which may be summarised as follows: a) climate changes and, in particular, variations in spring temperatures; b) population evolution in pastoral communities.Regarding the former issue, given that climate variability influences pasture productivity, as will be described later in greater detail, it may be considered a proxy for the potential volume of grass that the pastures produce. Regarding the latter issue, population evolution in an economic system that is closely dependent on local natural resources may be considered a proxy for anthropic pressure on the environment and hence for the demand for pasture with possible repercussions on the attributed value.


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