Researchers find errors in a classic 1807 survey; updating the true impact of climate change on the region.


Alexander von Humboldt’s Tableau Physique (1807) has been one of the most influential diagrams in the history of environmental sciences. In particular, detailed observations of the altitudinal distribution of plant species in the equatorial Andes, depicted on a cross-section of Mt. Chimborazo, allowed Humboldt to establish the concept of vegetation belt, thereby laying the foundations of biogeography. Surprisingly, Humboldt’s original data have never been critically revisited, probably due to the difficulty of gathering and interpreting dispersed archives. By unearthing and analyzing overlooked historical documents, we show that the top section of the Tableau Physique, above the tree line, is an intuitive construct based on unverified and therefore partly false field data that Humboldt constantly tried to revise in subsequent publications. This finding has implications for the documentation of climate change effects in the tropical Andes. We found that Humboldt’s primary plant data above tree line were mostly collected on Mt. Antisana, not Chimborazo, which allows a comparison with current records. Our resurvey at Mt. Antisana revealed a 215- to 266-m altitudinal shift over 215 y. This estimate is about twice lower than previous estimates for the region but is consistent with the 10- to 12-m/decade upslope range shift observed worldwide. Our results show the cautious approach needed to interpret historical data and to use them as a resource for documenting environmental changes. They also profoundly renew our understanding of Humboldt’s scientific thinking, methods, and modern relevance.

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