It seems that a critical mass of storm disasters have finally impacted enough skeptics that the country may start trying to do something about climate change. It is too late to prevent “global warming” which is already well under way, but we can at least slow down our production of green house gases. Most old-timers in the Adirondacks have noticed that our winter sports possibilities are declining rapidly; and that is not good, for our own recreation and for so many businesses that depend on ice and powder snow (remember skiing on that back in the old days?). Climatologists cannot predict exactly what will happen where, but there will be more intense floods, droughts, and storms which mess up the ecology for many species, some of which cannot adapt fast enough to survive. We humans should be able to survive if we are smart enough, but life will be different.
As a naturalist I have been worried about our mountain species since 1990 when I was first made aware of the concept of global warming. Arctic-alpine species have nowhere to go but away. A botanist friend is studying changes on the mountaintop plants of the northeast, looking at ones which live where late-lasting snowbanks so far cover them well into June. I joined her last year on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire on June 15 and was disappointed because the flowers which should have been blooming then in the “Alpine Garden” were already gone. Spring was at least a week early.
On my way to Halifax for a family matter this year, I drove up Mt. Mansfield in Vermont to see the arctic-alpine plants there. We have many of the same species on our highest peaks but I am getting too old/lazy to climb them! (Many of the ones on Whiteface were long ago trampled by the hordes of people who did not know that, tough though the plants are, they cannot survive foot traffic.) Mansfield was a hard enough climb, though it is only a 500-foot ascent over a mile and a quarter to get to the top of the “Chin” along open ridge. The slick schist is awkward to climb on even when dry (and dangerous when wet), and even at a naturalist’s “crawl” it was a challenge for me, though the other hundred people there on that beautiful day didn’t seem fazed at all.
With a wonderful photograph and alpine ecology book written by the same friend, Nancy Slack, I was able to identify many of the dwarf alpine plants and other native specialties, including a deep pink rhododendron in its prime, Rhodora. It was hiding behind a rock in a boggy area on the way up, so that I didn’t see it until I was almost back down to the road. The icing on the cake that day.
Not far from Halifax and right on the coastal bedrock, I identified many other dwarf plants, including one that had me stumped for a whole year because arctic-alpine experts could not help me. No wonder — it is a “barrens” species, one which also thrives in harsh conditions—constant wind, cold, sterile rock or sand, and even salt spray — but not on the top of mountains.
Right near there but in a slightly protected bog area were dozens of my favorite wild orchid — Arethusa, or Dragon’s Mouth. These were all smaller than ours but one was ridiculously tiny — 2 inches instead of the average ten or 12 inches high though it was perfectly formed.
On the drive home a few days later my new cell phone was not working in the deep valley near Mt. Washington. So despite the prediction of thunderstorms, I “had to drive up it” again, where, sure enough, cell coverage was excellent. And so were the flowers on the Alpine Garden trail, which is very difficult walking because of the loose rocks and boulders that cover the whole mountain. But with the help of a walking stick, very slow, careful walking, and Nancy’s book (which all the other botanists were using too), I was able to identify dozens of plants, blooming or not. It was a blast.
Just after the drizzle started, I headed back up the steep, difficult climb to the car, lacking just a couple of species that should have been blooming. Aha—there the pink beauties were, visible from the trail going in this direction. A totally successful hunt, and the downpour didn’t start until I was in the car!