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A Riddle of the Alpine

August 03, 2021

by Rachael Jones, 2021 Summer Intern

I love watching the rising snowpack graph each winter and cheering on that moving dial that seems so full of promise. In recent years, though, that dial has peaked early and well below average, inevitably inducing visions of drought, wildfire, and drying vegetation in our local ecosystems. I’m not an ecologist, however, and while some of these assumptions surrounding drought conditions are accurate, one experience this summer reminded me that ecology is profoundly nuanced.


Author Rachael (center) works with AGCI's other interns and Independence Pass Foundation's Karin Teague and Amber Crow to identify species in a sub-plot of the vegetation survey (July 12, 2021). Image Credit: AGCI.

While my winter was spent worrying about the snowpack, my summer was spent researching (and worrying about) climate change as an intern with Aspen Global Change Institute. One day in early July, my mentor and I (along with a handful of other ecologists and interns) conducted a vegetation survey on Independence Pass. This allows us to identify the species present this year and compare the data with that of prior years. On the day of the survey, due to wildfire smoke, we could barely see the Geissler twin summits and Twining Peak across the valley from our chosen site near the Independence Pass iRON station. I noticed only a couple small cornices remained near their 13,000+ foot summits. No one needed a sweater, and I regretted my heavy boots and wool socks. The still, sticky, ambient air and the stifling feeling induced by the smoke layer made it difficult to believe that we were in the alpine above the treeline. I’d come to the mountains to escape the heat hundreds of times over the years, but that was not the case today.

Much to our collective delight, however, the tundra at 12,000 feet was teeming with plant life. We set up transect tape for our Modified-Whittaker plot, then crouched down near the first 2m x 5m rectangle. Western paintbrush, alpine sagebrush, bistort, diamond leaf saxifrage...this was my first vegetation survey, and the names of the species quickly caught in my mind as I paired them with the flowers in front of me. We found dozens of species, from the tiniest moss campion, minuartia and Draba aurea, to taller, robust king’s crown and marsh marigolds. The arctic gentians were present but not yet in bloom. James’ snowlover, a rare Colorado wildflower, was abundant. I filled my notebook with this Latin litany.

Nothing changed in the sky that day; the smoke and warm temperatures stagnated. But as we squatted inches above this green, diminutive landscape, everything shifted for me. I was startled to see the alpine plant life so abundant despite the megadrought upon us in the West and the global temperatures rising to astonishing heights. I wonder what systems are in place to bring about such a cacophony of wildflowers in this dry year. I wonder what other ecological surprises I will encounter in the upcoming decades.