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Volume 28
Number 2
Summer 2011
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Alpine wildflowers Estimating and mitigating the impacts of climate change and air pollution on alpine plant communities in national parks
By Ellen Porter, Harald Sverdrup, and Timothy J. Sullivan
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
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Alpine wildflowers

Copyright Debbie Miller

Figure 1. Alpine meadows and hillsides may look very different in the future as climate change and nitrogen from air pollution cause changes in plant communities.

Imagine an alpine meadow at the height of wildflower season: a tapestry of blue columbines, yellow buttercups, crimson paintbrush, white phlox, and pink bitterroot contrasting with the deep blue sky of the Rocky Mountains (fig. 1, above). This explosion of color continues to inspire hikers to brave the high winds, low temperatures, and thin air in the high regions of our western national parks during the brief summers that are experienced at those elevations. We know that a changing climate is likely to affect this display (Bowman 2000). A longer growing season and changes in rain and snowfall will alter the alpine environment. Some plants will be displaced and others lost entirely, while some will thrive under new conditions. These changes will occur in addition to those already under way because of air pollution.

Air pollutants containing nitrogen are altering plant communities in many areas of the world because of nitrogen’s fertilizing effect (Bobbink et al. 2010). Vehicles, power plants, industry, and agriculture all emit nitrogen that deposits into ecosystems with rain and snow, fertilizing some plants at the expense of others. Alpine plant communities are particularly at risk, having evolved under low-nitrogen conditions (Bowman 2000). When additional nitrogen from air pollution is available, plants with the ability to quickly assimilate it, including some invasive and nonnative species, gain a competitive advantage (Clark et al. 2007). Current levels of nitrogen pollution are sufficient to induce changes in alpine plant communities in and near Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado (Bowman et al. 2006). But can we anticipate the even greater changes that are likely to occur as nitrogen pollution interacts with climate change? The Air Resources Division of the National Park Service (NPS) has recently collaborated with U.S. and European scientists to apply the innovative environmental effects model ForSAFE-VEG to help estimate future conditions and answer such questions.

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This page updated:  8 November 2011

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From the Editor
Information Crossfile
Masthead Information
Special Issue: Climate Change Science in the National Parks
Climate change impacts and carbon in U.S. national parks
Glossary: Climate change–related terms
Pikas in Peril: Multiregional vulnerability assessment of a climate-sensitive sentinel species
Pika monitoring under way in four western parks: The development of a collaborative multipark protocol
Climate change science in Everglades National Park
Sea-level rise: Observations, impacts, and proactive measures in Everglades National Park
Landscape response to climate change and its role in infrastructure protection and management at Mount Rainier National Park
Glacier trends and response to climate in Denali National Park and Preserve
Climate change, management decisions, and the visitor experience: The role of social science research
Conserving pinnipeds in Pacific Ocean parks in response to climate change
The George Melendez Wright Climate Change Fellowship Program: Promoting innovative park science for resource management
  Estimating and mitigating the impacts of climate change and air pollution on alpine plant communities in national parks
Parks use phenology to improve management and communicate climate change
Standards and tools for using phenology in science, management, and education
Hummingbird monitoring in Colorado Plateau parks
Paper birch: Sentinels of climate change in the Niobrara River Valley, Nebraska
Climate change in Great Basin National Park: Lake sediment and sensor-based studies
Long-term change in perennial vegetation along the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park (1889–2010)
The distribution and abundance of a nuisance native alga, Didymosphenia geminata, in streams of Glacier National Park
Monitoring direct and indirect climate effects on whitebark pine ecosystems at Crater Lake National Park
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