Story by Scott Sady
Photography by Scott and Monique Sady
Mount Barcroft, a rocky, windswept 13,040-foot peak in the White Mountains above Bishop, CA, is an unlikely candidate for a global climate change laboratory. For the 28 scientists and research students huffing and puffing their way up its flanks this early July morning however, it marked ground zero in the US for studying the effects of climate change.
Mount Barcroft is one of seven permanent study sites established in 2004 in the White Mountains as part of the GLORIA project.
GLORIA (or Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments) is actually a standardized protocol for taking a census of the plant diversity and distribution on alpine peaks that scientists around the world can use to get repeatable and scientifically relevant data.
GLORIA started in Austria on a shoestring budget by a group mostly composed of scientists and volunteers in 1994. The first few permanent sites were established across Europe in 2001 after years of hammering out the methodology to be used. In 2004 the University of California’s White Mountain Research Station, which has facilities at 10,150 feet and 12,410 feet in the White Mountains, and even has one of the highest research stations in the US on the summit of White Mountain Peak at 14,250 feet, became the first and only US master site.
Connie Millar, a research scientist with the US Forest Service, was instrumental in brining the project to the US. “We had a real concern about the lack of integration in the mountain sciences,” said Miller during a slow, rocky drive up to White Mountain Peak.
“Above tree line, alpine summits are very consistent throughout the world. They are more affected by the environment and less by human and other factors,” she said, making them a sort of high-altitude canary in the coalmine.
The GLORIA protocol brings that integration by dictating a very specific method for choosing study plots, mapping them out in a repeatable way, and surveying and cataloging the results in an international database. GLORIA requires that the study plots are resurveyed every 5 years. This was the first resurvey of a site in the United States.
Since the initial permanent US survey site was established in the White Mountains in 2004, new sites have been established in the Rockies, the Cascades, Alaska, the High Sierra near Mount Dana, and in Lake Tahoe on Freel and Job’s peaks.
In addition to documenting the plant coverage and diversity, other GLORIA volunteers were placing hundreds of tiny temperature sensors to get an exact picture of what the temperature is doing in each of these micro-climates. Another group of scientists were counting the butterfly populations near each of these peaks. Butterflies follow their food, plants, and are another indicator for climate change. Two researchers have even designed a specialized leaf blower to work in reverse and suck out all the insects under .5 meter x .5 meter nets, which are later painstakingly sorted and identified to get an idea of the insect populations around each of these plots.
In Europe, where these surveys have been going on for longer, scientists have noted the steady upslope march of plants and increases in their density as our climate warms.
What changes might we see on the first US resurvey? While this project is too new for statistically relevant findings, most of the young research assistants trudging up the flanks of Mt. Barcroft that day wanted to be the first to find a new species in their study plot.
They didn’t have to wait long. Shortly after setting down their backpacks just outside the study area 22 year-old ecology student Allison Louthan let out a squeal. The cause of all this excitement? A tiny delicate purple flower called “Mimulus mephiticus,” but much more fun to refer to by its common name, the Skunky monkeyflower. The Skunky monkeyflower, true to its name, emits a foul odor. It also was not present in the study plot during the first survey 5 years-ago. This time they found 3 plants growing.
Adelia Barber, a PhD researcher from the University of Santa Cruz studying the ancient bristlecone pine trees that share this bleak mountain realm cautions against drawing any conclusions from such a young study. “I’m not totally convinced that we are observing actual species change yet,” she said. “These species may not have been present 5 years-ago because it was a drier year. What I can say for certain is that after 2 rounds of GLORIA, we know every species growing on each of those peaks right now. Exactly where they are and approximately what density they are growing at. We may not be certain what is going on with them right now, but any future climatic change can be documented in precise detail.”
That is exactly the reason that the GLORIA project was established. It is hard to say with absolute certainty that the climate is changing anything if you don’t first have a well-documented baseline for comparison. Now we have it. The next several years should really show us beyond a doubt what climate change is doing to our beloved mountain peaks.