23 Aug Fragility/Resilience: Themes in the Meadows
PART 1: FRAGILITY
When you visit Mount Rainier, odds are that you go up to the Paradise area of the park. Known for its showy wildflowers and mountain views, it is one of the most highly visited sections of the park, and has the impacts to show for it: through the verdant fields run social trails (also called scarring) from decades of off-trail wandering. The plants have been trampled year after year, such that they no longer grow in those areas, creating long stretches of dust and dirt between the flowers. Meadow trampling and off-trail scarring is a subject of much concern for the park, and front-country vegetation teams are often working on mapping those impacts, using GPS and aerial imagery, or revegetating those areas. Volunteer meadow rovers keep watch over the trails, ropes and poles guide visitors along trails, and signage encourages you to not be a meadow stomper. One of the most special and accessible areas of the park is in the most danger from human impact.
Though the meadows we use for our long-term monitoring purposes are much more secluded – often a steep scree field away – we are also seeing impacts, albeit from a larger issue. Because the wildflowers grow at such high elevations, they have very short growing seasons and must take advantage of the brief summers. With climate change shifting the temperature gradients and timings of peak summer, their delicate phenology (timing of bloom and seed) might shift as well. With our long-term data, we hope to see change over time, but even with year-to-year fluctuations we are seeing differences in bloom timing. This leaves us uncertain of how climate change will impact the entire subalpine ecosystem, including the pollinators and animals that rely on the wildflowers.
PART 2: RESILIENCE
When we talk about the delicate nature of our meadows, we focus on the frailty of the blooms under visitors’ boots, and that is a direct impact that we should indeed be mitigating. But we don’t talk often about how strong those little flowers are, and how well-adapted to their ecosystems they seem to be, and this other side of the story is so compelling. Though small, they have evolved in balance with the other species they live with and have managed to thrive in harsh environments alternatingly full of snow, scree, and sun. Their relationship with pollinators is especially exciting: some syrphid flies, or flower flies, for example, have specially shaped mouths to fit specific flowers in the subalpine ecosystems, such as violets or thistles. They emerge at the same time that their flower partners bloom, and though their relationship lasts for only a few weeks a year, it is so fun to see in action in our plots as the flies lick the sweat off our fingers and hover protectively near their blooms. These plant-pollinator relationships are a sign of how well the flowers have adapted to their environments, and how they could adapt to changing futures.
Though the wildflower meadows and their pollinators face threats from increased visitation and climate change, they are tenacious and have survived in their ecological niches for so long that I have hope for them, however challenged they might be. We do not yet know what the long-term effects will be, but for now, the subalpine ecosystem stays strong together.