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

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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