Photos by Peggy Williams
Those gamboling across the tundra of Colorado’s high mountains this summer have been posting photographs of prolific wildflower displays to social media sites.
But what all has been happening up there beyond the dazzle?
It’s been warming, of course, like all other places. Research published in June has found that warming temperatures are causing plants to stay green longer and flower earlier. But their reproductive cycles are not responding in the same way.
A research team at the University of Colorado Boulder synthesized 30 years of experimental warming data from 18 different tundra sites, both in Arctic and Alpine areas, across the globe. What they found confounded simplistic explanations.
“This research shows how difficult it is to make broad-scale predictions about what’s going to happen with global climate change, because even with 30 years of data at 18 sites, there’s still very complex responses that are happening,” said Courtney Collins, a postdoctoral researcher in the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at CU Boulder and the lead author of the study that was published in Nature Communications.
See also, The future of Mountain Meadows, about research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory at Gothic.
The research included studies on Niwot Ridge, located in the Front Range of Colorado northwest of Boulder.
“The tundra is warming much more rapidly than other parts of the world. In some places, it’s happening at twice the rate of warming (of the rest of the globe), and so these changes are occurring extremely fast and they’re happening as we speak,” said Collins in a story issued by the university.
Warming of Arctic areas of permafrost had long worried climate scientists. As the Washington Post noted in a story this week, they call it the “methane bomb.” They worry about melting of the vast permafrost in Siberia.
“What we do know with quite a lot of confidence is how much carbon is locked up in the permafrost. It is a big number, and as the Earth warms and the permafrost thaws, that ancient organic matter is available to microbes for microbial processes, and that releases CO2 and methane,” said Robert Max Holmes, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center.
Holmes was consulted by the Washington Post’s Steven Mufson after a new report was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about a surge of methane emissions from Siberia’s permafrost. This was a different source than expected. Thawing wetlands release microbial methane from the decay of soil and organic matter. Thawing limestone – or carbonate rock – releases hydrocarbons and gas hydrates from both below and within the permafrost.
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Surface temperatures during the heat wave in Siberia had soared to 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit above the norms of the 20th century.
Holmes, the scientist, called the finding intriguing. “It’s not good news if it’s right. Nobody wants to see more potentially nasty feedbacks, and this is potentially one.”
In Colorado, temperatures have been rising for decades. A study conducted since the 1980s at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory near Crested Butte has attempted to predict the future of mountain meadows with rising temperatures. The bottom line: more sagebrush, fewer wildflowers.
Also at Gothic, site of the outdoor laboratory, David Inouye studied wildflower blooms for decades. In 2014, he reported results of his 39 years of study. More than two-thirds of alpine flowers had changed their blooming patterns, he found. The blooming season that had formerly run from late May through early September now lasts from late April to late September.
The spring peak, when masses of wildflowers burst into bloom, had moved up by five days per decade, he found.