Sunday, September 27, 2020

Future of the Alpine Tundra

arctic tundra, Sweden
arctic tundra in Sweden, 1980s

The tundra is the coldest ecosystem on earth, found in the Arctic and high on mountains. As the coldest, it is changing rapidly from global warming. World temperature is up by about 2o Fahrenheit over the last 100 years (link) but at the poles it is up twice that (link). The average temperatures on high mountains (Alps, Rocky Mountains) are up 3o Fahrenheit during that time. In arctic tundra, the permanently frozen ground is melting, forming lakes, in other places it is drying out and has caught fire, while glaciers and sea ice are melting, all of these imperiling cold-adapted animals and plants and the people who depend on them. At high elevations, conditions are rapidly changing as well. On mountains, animals and plants will migrate higher for cooler conditions, but when the summit gets too warm, they will die out.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Alpine Tundra Wildflowers in Rocky Mountain National Park

Life is hard for plants of the alpine tundra (previous post link). Alpine tundra is the ecosystem above treeline, in the United States from about 10,000' elevation up. The growing season is short, about three months. Frosts occur most nights all year and snow can fall any day. 

                     alpine tundra in July

The soil is unstable as the water in it freezes (expanding) and thaws (contracting). The soil shifts and the rocks steadily move around. Plant roots are displaced, making them sprawl. There is little cover, thin atmosphere, and less distance to the sun, so sunlight is very strong, despite cool temperatures, making sun damage to tissues much more common than better-protected places.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Alpine Tundra in Northern Colorado

Tundra is the ecosystem where it is too cold for trees. It can be too cold because the growing season is too short or because the soil is frozen (permafrost) much of the time and, in the brief periods when it is not frozen, shifts, knocking trees over, usually both. Tundra is found in the Arctic (in the Antarctic, ocean fills the area that would have tundra) and high on mountains. It is the coldest ecosystem on earth.

alpine zone, Rocky Mountain National Park
alpine tundra is above the highest trees

Ecologists try to reduce the world's ecosystems to a minimum number. Of land ecosystems, called biomes, they can be reduced to forest, grassland, desert, and tundra. For people in the lower 48 United States, tundra is hardest biome to see. There is no arctic tundra in the lower 48 and alpine tundra occurs only on the tops of mountains. There are areas of alpine tundra high in the mountains of New York and New England, a chain of spots of tundra along the Rocky Mountains above 10,500 feet, and a similar chain of tundra when you get high enough in the Sierras and Cascades. Rocky Mountain National Park has the most accessible alpine tundra, because Trail Ridge Road will let you drive right up to it. And it is pretty extensive, something like 149 square miles in all the park (though some of it is way too steep for people or on an isolated peak). I wanted to see all the biomes of the world. Tundra was the last of the four I reached.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Robert Fortune, Tea, and China

Robert Fortune (1820-1880) was a plant collector who did a lot of work in China. I encountered him reading about plants from China that are now common garden plants in Europe and North America (forsythias, peonies, wisteria and more), in Sarah Rose' book on tea, For All the Tea in China, How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History, in London at Chelsea Physic Garden where he was curator, and his home nearby. British sources talk of him as a talented and brave plant collector. Sarah Rose's book and some thought about how the Chinese might view it, complicates that picture. 

sign from Robert Fortune's house in London
This placque is on the house at 9 Gilston Road,  Chelsea, London

Robert Fortune house, London

The language we choose is so evocative. Robert Fortune stole tea from China. He broke the Chinese monopoly on tea. He spied in China, disguised as a Chinese. Despite great difficulties, he collected and successfully brought many important Chinese plants to England.