It's wildflower season on mountain peaks, but alpine plants may soon miss the date

Jul 12, 2012 by Cheryl Dybas
Flowers and buds on rockcress in the Colorado Rocky Mountains: earlier each year. Credit: David Inouye

(Phys.org) -- July brings a riot of color--a rainbow-hued carpet of wildflowers--to the high peaks of the Rockies.

In these mountain environments, however, have a narrow window of opportunity to set their buds.

Now, in a changing climate, that hurry-up-and-flower date is moving ever earlier on the calendar. How quickly can plants respond?

The alpine growing season in places like the Rockies doesn't begin until snows melt, sometimes as late as June. Snows may fall again by October.

In such habitats, snow covers the ground for eight to nine months of the year--or used to. In recent decades, climate change has warmed the planet and caused snows to melt earlier.

In response, plants and animals at high altitudes become active much sooner. In the case of plants, is it because their populations are evolving or because their flowering time is flexible?

A paper published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London - Biological Series reports that climate change has significantly affected Drummond's rockcress (Boechera stricta), an alpine plant native to the Rocky Mountains.

Using a unique combination of long-term data on the timing of flowering and snowmelt, and an experimental genetics approach, ecologists Jill Anderson of Duke University, David Inouye and Amy McKinney of the University of Maryland and Colorado's Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and colleagues found that Drummond's rockcress flowered 13 days earlier in 2011 than in 1973.

Other co-authors of the paper are Robert Colautti of the University of British Columbia and Thomas Mitchell-Olds of Duke University.

The change results from a combination of earlier flowering by individual plants and gradual genetic changes in the population of .

"More than 38 years of data on flowering time gives us important insights into how this wildflower--and other species--are responding to climate change," said Inouye.

If climate change continues at the same rate, Drummond's rockcress should bloom a month sooner by 2100 than it does now.  Do the plants have the flexibility to change that much?

"Global climate change imposes severe new stresses on organisms," said Anderson. "Species that cannot evolve fast enough risk extinction."

Faced with a new but uncertain threat, remaining flexible makes the most sense, said Saran Twombly, program director in NSF's Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research. "So it is with the plant species studied here. Flexibility in response to rising temperatures will contribute directly to its success."

Plants have evolved to bloom in response to certain climate conditions. Those conditions--timing of snowmelt, growing season temperature, and light levels--have always signaled the beginning of the growing season.

Temperatures may increase into the foreseeable future, scientists believe, but climate change is unlikely to affect environmental variables such as light.

That results in a decoupling of previously reliable--and linked--cues, potentially disrupting the reproductive biology of many species that rely on multiple signals to bloom.

At the end of each summer, the seeds of Drummond's rockcress fall just beneath the mother plant. So the species has a limited ability to migrate to higher elevations to escape increasing temperatures.

Drummond's rockcress will need to adjust to not by moving to cooler environs, but by finding a way to thrive right where it lives.

How will it succeed? Inouye says it will happen through a long-term combination of changing responses by individual plants and evolutionary changes by the population of wildflowers.

The only hope--at least for the Drummond's rockcress--may be as an earlier and earlier early-bloomer.

Explore further: Salmon forced to 'sprint' less likely to survive migration

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User comments : 16

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Shootist
2 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2012
What did these poor, heat exhausted, alpine plants do during the Roman Climate Optimum (when it was .6C warmer than it is today)?

What did these poor heat exhausted alpine plants do when there were dairy farms in Greenland, nee. Medieval Climate Optimum (when it was warmer than it is today)?

There were vineyards in Scotland for nearly 1200 years (from Roman times until at least King John). There are no vineyards in Scotland today, as it is too cold.
djr
3.8 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2012
I wonder if shootist has any scientific reference to support his nonsense - probably not. Here is a reference that addresses the issue of the mwp crap well. http://www.newsci...and.html

Of course - shootist cannot show any reference to science that claims the climate has never been warmer in the past - so the point is mute from two perspectives. That does not slow down the relentless onslaught of nonsense.
Claudius
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 12, 2012
I wonder if shootist has any scientific reference to support his nonsense - probably not.


http://phys.org/n...ars.html
djr
3.8 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2012
So - claudius - here is the link to the original article - that was reported by physorg. http://www.nature...589.html

Take a ruler and place it on the graph that shows the climate reconstruction for the past 2000 yrs - and notice the spikes in the years leading up to 2,000. Understand this graph does not include the last 12 yrs - that include the warmest decade on record. http://www.livesc...880.html

hopefully will be enough for you - but I imagine you can cherry pick an article from somewhere that shows that there were kiwi growing in London in 1365 - so global warming in a conspiracy of scientists to take over the world....
djr
3.8 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2012
The edit function messed up my last post -I also wanted to include this graphic http://www.newsci..._726.jpg

- that shows multiple lines of data reconstruction - and completely refutes any notion that the mwp was ".6C warmer than it is today... - such rubbish....
Claudius
1 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2012
but I imagine you can cherry pick an article from somewhere


http://en.wikiped...m_Period
djr
3.8 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2012
Can you read Claudius? Did you see this sentence on wiki?

warmth that matches or exceeds that of the past decade in some regions, but which falls well below recent levels globally"
Claudius
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 12, 2012
Well, that quote was from the infamous Michael Mann. Take with big grain of salt.

Did you read this from the same article?

"A 1979 study from the University of Waikato found that "Temperatures derived from an 18O/16O profile through a stalagmite found in a New Zealand cave (40.67°S, 172.43°E) suggested the Medieval Warm Period to have occurred between AD 1050 and 1400 and to have been 0.75 °C warmer than the Current Warm Period.""

Or this, again from the same article:

"The Vikings took advantage of ice-free seas to colonize Greenland and other outlying lands of the far north."

Anyway, your position was that there was no MWP at all, which the Wikipedia article does not agree with.
djr
4 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2012
"Anyway, your position was that there was no MWP at all"

Here we go again - it is like trying to have a rational conversation with people who cannot even read - it is not fair of you. Please answer this question. Where did I ever say that there was no mwp? Please quote exact words to show how you feel I said there was no mwp.

On your second point - you quote a 1979 (33 year old study) - to support the assertion that the mwp was warmer than TODAY... Do you see the problem? Did you look at the graphs of multiple data lines in the references? Did you look at the temperature spikes in the last 15 years?
Claudius
1 / 5 (3) Jul 13, 2012
Where did I ever say that there was no mwp? Please quote exact words to show how you feel I said there was no mwp.


shootist:
Medieval Climate Optimum (when it was warmer than it is today)?

There were vineyards in Scotland for nearly 1200 years (from Roman times until at least King John). There are no vineyards in Scotland today, as it is too cold.


dir:
Here is a reference that addresses the issue of the mwp crap


Res ipsa loquitur.

Claudius
2 / 5 (4) Jul 13, 2012
On your second point - you quote a 1979 (33 year old study) - to support the assertion that the mwp was warmer than TODAY...


Take that issue up with the Wiki editors, who included it in their article for a reason.

If I referred to Galileo's observations of Jupiter's moons, would you consider that invalid just because it happened centuries ago? Good scientific research does not lose validity with age. If that were the case, we could not build on previous work, and scientific progress would not be possible.

Did you look at the temperature spikes in the last 15 years?


It can't be reasonably denied that the climate is changing. It always has. The big question is whether we understand why it is changing, and what we should do about it, if anything. Right now there is no valid reason to take drastic steps.
Claudius
2.3 / 5 (4) Jul 13, 2012
http://www.nature...589.html

"N-scan shows a succession of warm and cold episodes including peak warmth during Roman and Medieval times alternating with severe cool conditions centred in the fourth and fourteenth centuries (Fig. 2). AD 2150 (+1.05°C, with respect to the 19511980 mean) was the warmest reconstructed 30-year period, ~2°C warmer than the coldest AD 14511480 period (1.19°C) and still ~0.5°C warmer than maximum twentieth-century warmth recorded AD19211950 (+0.52°C)."
Claudius
2.3 / 5 (4) Jul 13, 2012
In the previous post, AD 2150 should read AD 21-50.
19511980 should read 1951-1980.
AD 14511480 should read AD 1451-1480.
AD19211950 should read AD1921-1950.

PhysOrg deleted the dashes, dash it all.
djr
5 / 5 (1) Jul 13, 2012
Res ipsa loquitur.

No it does not - the reference I gave relating to the mwp fully acknowledged that the mwp occured - the problem that I had with shootists post was claiming that it was .6 degrees warmer than today. I posted a graphic of multiple lines of proxy data - all recognizing that the climate was warm at that point - not warmer than today. Look at the graphs I referenced. Look at the spikes in temperature in the last 15 yrs.
djr
5 / 5 (1) Jul 15, 2012
"Good scientific research does not lose validity with age." You totally miss the point - if you are going to argue that it was warmer in the mwp than it is today - then you must use today's temperatures to do your comparisons. comparing data from the mwp with data from 30 years ago does not tell us if it is warmer today than it was during the mwp.
NotParker
1 / 5 (2) Jul 15, 2012
The rockies run between BC and Alberta. If you compare the last 5 years to the previous 5 years:

BC is .7C colder.
Alberta is .58C colder.