by Cathy Bell
After a night spent deeply burrowed into the warmth of my down sleeping bag, I wake to discover that my tent has abruptly transformed itself from a cozy refuge to a swelteringly confined space. The sun has only just cleared the ridgeline of Cirque Peak, but its rays are strong here at 11,000 feet above sea level, and my little tent heats up like a greenhouse.
Changing from long underwear to field clothes, I clamber out of my tent to find a heavy frost riming the sedges along Siberian Pass Creek. It is the morning of July 20th. I don’t have a thermometer, but last night didn’t feel too cold. I’d guess that the overnight low was in the high 20s. I stretch and take my time over breakfast, giving the sun a little more time to warm the high country before I set out for my day’s fieldwork.
I’ve set up camp at the edge of a foxtail forest, where widely-spaced pines yield to the treeless gravel flats of the fetchingly-named Siberian Outpost. Around me, steep talus slopes rear skyward, hinting at the expansive alpine plateaus above. I am spending my summer in the wilderness of Sequoia National Park, just ten miles south-southwest of Mt. Whitney in the southern Sierra Nevada. At 14,494 feet, Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48, but—though it soars a gasping 3,000 feet above treeline—the famed summit is just one of a dozen exceeding 14,000 feet in this region. Spectacular alpine country abounds: I’ve heard that the Sierra Nevada feature more acres above treeline than any other mountain range in the conterminous 48 states.
The rocky, seemingly-barren high reaches are the reason that I find myself here, in some of the wildest country remaining in the United States. Though the Sierra peaks seem lifeless from a distance, a closer look reveals a surprising diversity of hardy alpine plants growing amongst the boulders. I love this hidden world.
At the same time, I fear what the future holds. Research suggests that alpine vegetation is especially at risk from the rapid shifts in temperature and precipitation caused by anthropogenic climate change. Unfortunately, there are big gaps in our understanding of how high-elevation vegetation will respond to a changing climate. In fact, since alpine areas are such hard places to access, we don’t even know if their plant communities have already started showing the effects of a warming world.
To try to fill in some of those holes, my master’s project work involves searching for vegetation survey plots that were established some twenty-five years ago. When I can find the plots, I re-survey them in an effort to compare the plant populations we see today to the ones that were documented in the 1980s, hoping to determine if alpine species are already showing a response to climate change. So far, the project is going far better than I had dared to hope; I have found every single plot I’ve sought. Today, I’m going after Plot 403. I tried to visit it ten days ago, on July 10th, but it was still buried beneath two feet of snow. I’m hoping I have better luck today.
Shouldering my frame pack with its twenty pounds of field gear, I hike upvalley for half an hour, then scramble up a bouldered slope to the top of a ridge. As I walk, the rhythm of my footsteps and breath ease me into an almost meditative state. I take in the dramatic views and reflect on how the wilderness of Sequoia National Park is beautiful but vulnerable. Though we think of national parks as pristine, even our most highly-protected places are not insulated from human impacts. The beautiful and diverse plant populations of the High Sierra could be pushed out by changing conditions or the arrival of other plant species, irrevocably altering the character of this unique and inspiring wilderness. In order to preserve and protect this place for future generations to enjoy, we first have to determine if and how it is changing—and that is what my project is all about.
The ridge brings me west onto the rocky fellfields of the Boreal Plateau, where I start looking for the steel stake that marks the center of Plot 403. An expansive snowfield still clings to the slope to my right, but it lies east of where the plot should be, and I think I’ll be able to find the plot marker. I methodically work back and forth, trying to line up the mountains in the distance with rocks on the ground until they match the relocation photo on the clipboard I clutch in my left hand.
A brown tangle on the ground catches my eye. Distracted for a moment from my search, I stop and kneel to peer at the crushed and matted-down plants that the rapidly receding snow has revealed. Though seemingly dead, most will soon pull energy from their deep taproots and green up, life reasserting itself after the long winter.
Long winters define this world above treeline. A plant trying to survive here must contend with a growing season of only about two months, howling winds, and an environment that—despite abundant snowfall—is startlingly short on liquid water during the summer, when growing plants require it. It’s a tough place to make a living, but the alpine plants of the Sierra Nevada are well-adapted to their environment. They have weathered gradual shifts in climate for a long time. They are survivors, I know. I just hope they are able to cope with the climate curveball we have thrown them.
Straightening up, I resume my search for Plot 403, and in just a few minutes I glimpse a flash of reflected sunlight off the center stake. I take off my pack and get to work.