Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Climate Change Leaves Wildflowers in the Cold

• April 22, 2008 • 5:10 PM

In the wildflower meadows of the West, we may be hearing the whisperings of a post-climate-change world.

The wildflowers in the fields of Crested Butte, Colo., do not give up their secrets easily, but David Inouye believes they have something important to say about the changing climate and our future in it. He has been visiting the montane meadows of the wildflower capital, 9,000 feet above the Colorado plain, every summer for the past 35 years to spend the season conducting a unique natural experiment.

A University of Maryland professor of conservation biology, Inouye says he first arrived in the region as a graduate student in the summer of 1971 to study insects but soon found himself captivated by the mysteries of the region’s abundant wildflowers.

“I started out studying bumblebees but soon discovered I also needed to understand something about the plants those bees pollinate,” he said.

His methodology is simple. Over the years, he demarcated 30 undisturbed wildflower plots, each two meters square, scattered throughout the highlands around the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. He visits each of them every other day during the summer to take a census. “It takes about one and a half to three hours each day, depending on how many of the plants are in bloom.”

During his rounds, he takes a comprehensive survey of the flowering plants in each plot, noting their condition and the phenological phase in their growth cycle.

His initial timing was fortuitous. Conducting one of the United States’ longest-running phenological experiments, Inouye now says, “I seem to have come in at a time of transition.”

Until that time, climate change had not been noted as having significant impacts at higher elevations. But, he says, during the mid-1990s, things began to change.

Since then, he says, “Spring seems to be arriving earlier,” reflecting a trend widely observed in ecosystems at lower elevations. But, up on the butte, he also made a unique finding: With the warming trend, wild sunflowers began disappearing from his plots.

Inouye struggled to tease out the cause, finally and paradoxically attributing it to frost damage caused by a warming climate.

Nonlinear Timing
Susan Mazer, a professor of biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says the impact of climate warming has not been strictly linear in its effects on seasonal events and that this is particularly so for high elevations, such as Crested Butte.

For such regions, the evolutionary biologist says, the date of snowmelt has retreated to earlier in the spring, while the date of the first frost in the fall has been delayed, resulting in a longer growing season.

The timing of seasonal events between those markers, however, has proven less elastic.

One such event, on Crested Butte, Inouye says, is the last hard frost of the spring. Warming has not substantially altered its date. Occurring around or between June 10 and 15, this cold snap now portends a mid-season die-off of immature, frost-sensitive plants. The sunflowers he has been observing for more than three decades, Inouye says, have been among these.

He explains it this way. Snowmelt signals the start of the growing season in the alpine environment of the butte. Over the years of Inouye’s study, the prodigious winter season snow accumulations, up to several feet deep in the region, have declined significantly. Lighter snow means an earlier thaw.

The early exposure of the ground to sunlight warms the soil, giving vegetation a head start on the growing season, but as a consequence, the sunflowers reach their budding phase weeks earlier than previously observed. Inouye says some of the plants that reach this delicate stage before the season’s last deadly freeze, in early June, do not weather it well. And among those, the frost-sensitive sunflowers fail to reproduce.

Inouye, however, says frost is apparently not the only villain. He has found that plant species not sensitive to frost damage have been disappearing from the meadows as well. Though he has yet to discover the direct cause in these instances, he says both types of losses seem to correspond to the earlier snowmelt.

Inouye says all of this points to declining diversity in the high-elevation habitats of the western United States, which has implications beyond affecting the natural ecology.

No Taste for Sagebrush
According to Inouye, if the trend toward shorter winters and earlier springs continues, the summer spectacle of colorful wildflower meadows of Crested Butte and similar ecosystems could eventually be reduced to mirror the uniform populations of sagebrush, blanketing the arid terrain at lower elevations.

Beyond the obvious impacts on sightseeing tourism, for which the area has become famous, he says this could raise prices at the grocery. According to Inouye, cattle ranchers have customarily relied on patches of mountain wildflowers in the national forest system in the western U.S. as low-cost forage for their herds. A takeover by sagebrush, less than ideal fodder for cattle, would force ranchers to seek alternative, and perhaps more costly, food sources for their stock.

Mazer says Inouye’s findings show how little we know of how wild lands might respond to environmental change. If similar effects occurred in other fragile ecosystems, particularly in areas bordering farmland, she says, there could be important implications for native pollinators, essential to efficient agricultural production but dependent on wildflowers.

According to Mazer, however, much research has yet to be done, and this highlights an urgent need for increased funding for basic research in biology. She believes adapting to shifting times may require adopting new priorities. “(The National Institutes of Health’s) budget has doubled in the past 15 years, but the same has not been true of (the) National Science Foundation, and that is the only source of federal funding available to support basic research in biology.”

David Richardson
David Richardson began his journalism career operating a video news service in Washington, D.C., that covered federal agencies and Congress. His film production work has since ranged from postings at the White House to rural villages of Botswana, documenting community-centered HIV prevention programs. He holds a B.A. degree in government from Dartmouth College. He now writes on science, the environment and policy from Baltimore, Md., where he's had some success growing organic produce in a small backyard garden.

More From David Richardson

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.