Saturday, July 27, 2013

Tracking montane wildflowers to unlock the secrets of our changing world

This article comes from Janneke Hille Riis Lambers of the University of Washington:

To residents of western Washington, the beginning of the high mountain hiking season doesn’t start until June or July – as snow is cleared or disappears from mountain roads and hiking trails. For example, the roads to the Sunrise Visitor Center and Mowich Lake at Mt. Rainier National Park only recently opened this year (early July), and some of the beautiful hikes from those locations still require hiking over snow.

As an environmental scientist based at University of Washington, this time of year means a flurry of logistical planning and coordination, as my students and I continue our studies on the relationships between climate, tree growth, and wildflowers at Mt. Rainier National Park. Although 1-3 feet of snow remains at some of our field sites above Paradise Meadows, the Avalanche lily has already emerged and is even setting seed at our lower elevation study sites near Reflection Lakes. If we’re not careful, we can miss the entire three-week flowering season of this beautiful species, which emerges directly from the melting snow sometime between mid-July and mid-August (depending on how late in summer the heavy snowpack melts out that year).

Exactly when the Avalanche lily blooms is significant for a number of reasons. Aesthetically, it is one of the most charismatic plant species in the meadows of Mt. Rainier (in our opinion), and a true sign that summer is coming to the high mountains. But the phenology of this species is also an important indicator of a changing climate. Phenology is the seasonal timing of life events, like a plant’s flowering and seedset, or an animal’s migration, reproduction and hibernation. And phenology is frequently directly tied to climate.

Although you wouldn’t know it from some of the cool and wet springs we’ve experienced in western Washington in the last 2-3 years, the Pacific Northwest has warmed by an average of 0.83°C in the last 100 years (according to the Climate Impacts Group at University of Washington). Our climate is changing, and the timing of the seasons is changing with it. Climate scientists tell us we should expect even more warming in the next 100 years.

This warming trend has implications for the phenology of plants and animals in Washington. Plants will likely emerge and flower earlier in the spring, and animals may also migrate or reproduce earlier in the season. This could mean that farmers markets will offer asparagus and cherries earlier in spring as the growing season advances. Our western Washington forests may become more productive as the growing season extends, but only where there is plenty of moisture and where pests (like the mountain pine beetle) or forest fires don’t also increase in frequency and abundance.

At Mt. Rainier National Park, the Avalanche lily (and other high mountain plant species) will likely emerge earlier as snow melt advances, and eating huckleberries at high elevations may also be possible earlier in the summer. Some of these changes may be problematic: the insects that pollinate Avalanche lilies and the bears that count on huckleberries for food may be in trouble if they can’t modify their behavior to keep track of their food resources.

To better understand the link between climate and the phenology of individual species — including the Avalanche lily — scientists like me have to take detailed notes on many individual plants. For example, my graduate student Elli Theobald has been returning to the same plants growing in Mt. Rainier National Park every year since 2010 so she can carefully track when this species, and other wildflowers, first emerges from the ground, flowers, and set seed. Eventually, she will compare those data to the local climate each plant experienced in that year (which we measure with microclimate sensors). The more data she and scientists like us have, the more we know and the better we can anticipate change, both in our local parks as well as regionally.

Collecting such data is time-consuming and difficult to get in the volumes scientists need for analysis. Scientists therefore often turn to the general public for help. A recently founded citizen science program out of my lab (MeadoWatch) is engaging in two such efforts at Mt. Rainier National Park. We have 60 volunteers lined up for ‘wildflower hikes’ throughout the summer, during which they will observe and note the timing of flowering for ten wildflower species. Our hikes are all full for this summer, but check out our website next spring if you want to participate in summer of 2014. If you are eager to participate in scientific research this year, we are also asking visitors like you to share any wildflower pictures you have taken within Mt. Rainier National Park with us. As long as we know exactly when and where each picture was taken (e.g. from date-stamps and geo-tags), it can serve as an ‘observation’ of phenology of whatever species you photographed. Together, these data sources will allow us to understand how the wildflower meadows come alive after snowmelt and change hue over the course of the summer as different wildflower species bloom.

You can join this effort by uploading any wildflower pictures you’ve taken within the  park to our project website on (see our project website for more details).  Additionally, if you are interested in continuing to monitor phenology in your own backyard when you get back from your visit to Mt. Rainier, consider working with our partner organization, the USA National Phenology Network, which engages volunteers throughout the country to monitor the phenology of nearly 900 plant and animal species through Nature's Notebook.

Regardless of which of these programs you engage in, your observations, along with many others, will have meaningful impact. They will allow scientists like me and my graduate student Elli Theobald to continue our quest for scientific discovery. Additionally, your data will also allow us to make very real, practical resource management recommendations to Mt. Rainier National Park on activities which are linked to the timing of the wildflower season (e.g. peak visitation, plant restoration activities). We hope you will participate!

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