Climate change at Mount Rainier to increase ‘mismatch’ between visitors, wildflowers

University of Washington

IMAGE

A subalpine meadow on Mount Rainier in the summer.

Credit: Elli Theobald

Spring is coming, and with it comes the promise of warmer weather, longer days and renewed life.

For residents of the Pacific Northwest, one of the most idyllic scenes of this renewed life is the wildflowers that light up Mount Rainier’s subalpine meadows once the winter snowpack finally melts. These floral ecosystems, which typically arrive in summer, are an iconic feature of Mount Rainier, and a major draw for the more than 1 million tourists, hikers and nature-lovers who visit the national park each spring and summer.

But without cuts to our carbon emissions, by the end of this century, scientists expect that snow in the subalpine meadows will melt months earlier due to climate change. New research led by the University of Washington shows that, under those conditions, many visitors would miss the flowers altogether.

The research team made this discovery using crowd-sourced photos of Mount Rainier’s subalpine meadows taken from 2009 to 2015 and uploaded to the photo-sharing site Flickr. As they report in a paper published Dec. 9 in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 2015 was an unusually warm, dry year when snow melted and disappeared from the meadows about two months earlier than usual. As a result, wildflower season was shorter and arrived earlier. But Flickr photos showed that visits by people to Mount Rainier in 2015 peaked later than the flowers, after the height of wildflower season.

“We know from park surveys that the wildflowers are a major reason people visit Mt. Rainier National Park,” said lead author Ian Breckheimer, a researcher at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and Harvard University who conducted this study as a UW doctoral student in biology. “They’re an iconic resource, drawing people from around the world.”

The team, led by UW biology professor and senior author Janneke Hille Ris Lambers, downloaded and analyzed more than 17,000 photos on Flickr taken in the subalpine region of Mount Rainier National Park from 2009 to 2015. The team used publicly accessible images that contained embedded GPS data, which allowed the team to know where in the park the photos were taken. They scored the images for the presence or absence of blooms from 10 species of wildflowers common to the subalpine meadows.

“These are a very nontraditional source of data, but they proved to be very informative,” said Hille Ris Lambers. “It allowed us to see when the flowers were blooming at a lot of different locations around the park.”

The team combined the data on wildflower blooms from the photos with snowmelt data — taken from 190 sensors placed across Mount Rainier — as well as park visitor data to model the wildflower seasons and peak visitor times from 2009 to 2015. They discovered that the earlier the snowmelt, the higher the “mismatch” between peak wildflower season and peak visitor times.

According to their model, for every 10 days of earlier snowmelt compared to today’s average, peak bloom in the subalpine meadows comes 7.1 days earlier and the total bloom season shortened by 0.36 days. People come earlier, too: Peak visits occurred about 5.5 days earlier. But that doesn’t keep pace with the flowers. In 2015, when snow melt was about two months earlier, the researchers discovered a 35% decrease in match between peak wildflower season and peak visits to the park compared to a late-melt year like 2011.

The study is among the first to examine the relationships in timing between people and a changing ecosystem, which raises questions for management of parks and preserves — and how to communicate with the public. The team only measured “mismatch” between wildflowers and visitors after the fact. With additional research, scientists may be able to predict outlying years early, alerting the public to visit sooner than normal to view the meadows.

This isn’t just about missed connections between wildflowers and people. Conditions in 2015 were an outlier by today’s standards; by the end of this century, scientist predict that 2015-style early snowmelts could be a regular occurrence. Beyond changes in peak bloom times, Hille Ris Lambers’ group has shown that in 2015 species bloomed in a different order, creating “reassembled” communities with unknown consequences. The meadows also are facing other stressors as the climate warms.

“These subalpine ecosystems are in real trouble,” said Breckheimer. “For example, climate change is allowing trees to encroach into the meadows at Mount Rainier and other sites across the West, and the meadows are not moving uphill as fast as the trees.”

It’s critical to retain public support for these precious natural resources, Breckheimer added.

“There’s a real question whether — or how much — we should intervene to protect meadows, by clearing trees through active management, for example, as we keep pushing ecosystems with climate change, and those systems keep getting further out of equilibrium,” said Breckheimer. “If visitor peak and flower peaks are at different times, it might affect public support for some of these measures for how public lands are managed in the face of climate change.”

###

Co-authors are Elli Theobald, a UW instructor in biology who conducted this research as a UW doctoral student; Nicoleta Cristea, a UW research scientist in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering and the eScience Institute; Anna Wilson with the Free Science Project; Jessica Lundquist, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Regina Rochefort with the National Park Service.

From EurekAlert!

77 thoughts on “Climate change at Mount Rainier to increase ‘mismatch’ between visitors, wildflowers

  1. Come on, Shirley this is nothing more than a lead-in promo to Beavis and Butthead Excellent Vacation II: Wildflowers on Mt. Rainier! Were tax monies consumed in this nonsense? For the record I visited Mr. Rainier for a snow/ice climbing school, and it is an excellent stop on any vacation nearby.

    • I love this lack of knowledge of the effects of CO2 on plant life.

      Long-terms records in England show that, although there has been really no temperature increase, flowering in the Spring has become two weeks earlier over time. This has been assumed, wrongly, to be because of global warming, but, not so fast . . .

      Increased CO2 makes plants more tolerant of cold and warm temperatures, allowing them to flower earlier in the Spring. Do not worry, the insects are used to changes in such factors, ‘been at it for millions of years. Do not forget the radical variations in temperature and CO2, called the glacial/interglacial periods.

      It is the enrichment of CO2 that is causing earlier flowering. DUH! It’s the tourists, who did not evolve their viewing habits to suit that are endangered.

      • “I love this lack of knowledge of the effects of CO2 on plant life.”

        And how about the lack of knowledge about the effects of CO2 on the Earth’s atmosphere. This study assumes too much. It assumes that CO2 is the main driver of the Earth’s atmosphere when there is no evidence that this is the case.

        All these human-caused climate change studies are built on a foundation that has never been established: That CO2 has more than a marginal effect on the Earth’s atmosphere and temperatures. Modern-day alarmist climate science is made up totally of fraud, speculation and assumptions. And then scientists like the above build on this speculation with more speculation.

        This is consensus science. A consensus to ignore reality and pretend that CO2 is the control knob of the Earth’s atmosphere.

        There really is a sucker born every minute and it doesn’t seem to be limited to low intelligence quotient..

      • I’m aware of CO2 ability to make plants more drought tolerant, but this is the first I’ve heard of any ability to make them heat and cold tolerant as well. Do you have any documentation to support that claim?

        • Yes, me too. I hadn’t heard this before so would like to know more so alarmism can be rebutted.

    • “The research team made this discovery using crowd-sourced photos of Mount Rainier’s subalpine meadows taken from 2009 to 2015 and uploaded to the photo-sharing site Flickr.”

      Meanwhile, Andy May’s excellent graphic from a few months back shows that the earth is in one of its coldest periods of the last 500 million years.

      “Research team”. These people are beyond parody.

  2. Usual thing have one year where the weather is completely different from normal and you get this article. The sky is falling. Fortunately God or whoever it is that creates the weather is not listening to these idiots.

    • A few years back (can’t remember which year) I took my wife to the Netherlands to see the tulips, which are a famous sight in those parts. Along with hundreds of other tourists, we toured the bulb fields. But the season was very late and there was scarcely a tulip to be seen in flower. Even the daffodils were struggling to open…

      Clearly a mismatch between tourism and flowers. I blame climate change.

  3. “These subalpine ecosystems are in real trouble,” said Breckheimer. “For example, climate change is allowing trees to encroach into the meadows at Mount Rainier and other sites across the West, and the meadows are not moving uphill as fast as the trees.”

    Hmm…. so trees colonize and grow faster than grasses now? But presumably didn’t when climate changed in the past?

    Not a great advert for UW, where I spent many happy years looking at Mt Rainier from the fountain outside Bagley Hall.

    • Sub-alpine meadows are maintained because the farmers need them for their cattle. They prevent the trees from growing there (at least, in Europe).

      • Mt. Rainier is a national park so no grazing inside the boundaries. Also Mt. Rainier is part of the Cascade Mountain Range, the Cascades in Oregon/Washington are steep and mostly carpeted with trees so not good grazing ground. Existing alpine meadows are very delicate and will not support anything but light grazing by existing roaming herds of elk. Hikers are asked to stay on established trails so as to not adversely impact these meadows with soil compaction being one of the big killers.

        Ranchers don’t get much further up than the lower foothills where the land is less steep and they can maintain pasture land. Existing meadows at that elevation are not alpine but yes, if they don’t maintain the tree population they will quickly take over. Both trees and grass grow like weeds out in the PNW.

  4. Oh Gee…
    The public simply isn’t smart enough to realize they might need to show up a little earlier to catch an early bloom season brought on be an early snow melt season.

    Man has a Problem…His scientific mind thinks all things are static and nothing changes or should change for that matter AND that no changes are Good Changes. (Like his scientific mind has never considered the possibility of Ecological Evolution.)

    • ”Man has a Problem…His scientific mind thinks all things are static and nothing changes or should change for that matter AND that no changes are Good Changes.”

      100% This seems to be a modern and very contagious state of mind among ”researchers”. I think it started in Australia with the reef people.
      It’s very strange, almost like they believe or expect time and nature stands still and if there movement of any kind – well then it must be bad.

      • ”Man has a Problem…His scientific mind thinks all things are static and nothing changes or should change for that matter AND that no changes are Good Changes.”

        Correction,
        Liberal left twits have a Problem…Their non-scientific mind thinks all things are static and nothing changes or should change for that matter AND that no changes are Good Changes.

        Glad to help

      • Their problem seems to be based on the theory that if they couldn’t/didn’t predict the correct date for the flowers to appear, then nature must be wrong. ‘See, all these pictures from different years show different snow melt dates and different flowering dates – and the tourists expect the ‘experts’ to accurately predict the dates – therefore it is the fault of the climate.
        The authors need to take a pill to lower their ego/self worth a bit. Humility is a good thing.

    • Those selling the Cult of Calamitous Climate,really do think other people are that stupid.
      Gee flowers bloom early,but we will go later.Cause that is when they should be!

      It could be a projection thing,possibly once you realize just how stupid you have become,do you ascribe the same level of “wisdom” to everyone else.?

    • Agreed. This is the first realization. People cannot adapt. Obama’s seaside retreat will be inundated by the waters as he and Michelle sit on the deck safely 1.3 meters above the surging sea remonstrating the ignorant masses for not believing.

  5. Perhaps the park should track the snow melt dates and put info on their website for potential Best Dates to visit for Wild Flower Blossoms

    • That is a great idea. That is what the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas does. Texans tend to become amateur phenologists whether we intend to or not by watching the changes in first bloom of the Bluebonnets. One of the glories is that it changes every year.

      Last year was spectacular, and thanks to continual cool temperatures and rains all the way into June, in my part of Texas we had bluebonnets along with masses of other flowers for months rather than the usual weeks.

    • Maybe they could talk to the Japanese who have a very good publicity system for the both the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) and Red-leaf seasons.

  6. Whenever a researcher uses the word ‘equalibrium’ to describe a natural ecosystem, I realize that they know nothing about natural ecosystems and a lot about politically correct narratives.

    Natural ecosystems have been, are now, and always will be in a state of flux, because nature is always in a state of flux. The only ecosystems that have reached a relative state of equilibrium are dead ones.

    The stupid is strong with this paper, but equating the observations of a random, outlying year with what could be expected after 80 years of a slow climate change is just idiotic. Nature adapts. It it did not, we would not be here.

  7. Is the tree line moving up due to climate or have grazing animals been moved away by some well meaning idiot to preserve the meadows? (“Oh no, the sheep/goats are eating the plants!!!”)

  8. 6 years of ‘data’ extrapolated for 80 further years does sound like good science on which to base assumptions/guesses/projections.

  9. What universities produce such “doctoral students”, later falsely called “scientists” ?
    That’s stuff just after primary school, completely blown away, not to believe !

  10. I think tourists can adjust to a new schedule over the course of the next 80 yrs.

    Newflash: tourism at Mt. Ranier is not based on wildflowers.

  11. OK, so what is the perfect ratio of blooms to people?

    For that matter, what is the perfect average global temperature of Earth (that we are supposedly disturbing with CO2)?

  12. No data from 2016-2019.
    Any reason?
    I am not unduly sceptical, I hope, but – might it be possible that the answers from the present short [seven year] data set may not have been verified by the most recent years?

    And, from the last paragraph but three –
    “This isn’t just about missed connections between wildflowers and people. Conditions in 2015 were an outlier by today’s standards; by the end of this century, scientist predict that 2015-style early snowmelts could be a regular occurrence. ”
    Predict [well, long, after those same ‘scientists’ have retired, and not have had to worry about their pension being taken away].
    And ‘could’ – the last word in scientific rigour – ish!

    Next paragraph
    ““These subalpine ecosystems are in real trouble,” said Breckheimer. “For example, climate change is allowing trees to encroach into the meadows at Mount Rainier and other sites across the West, and the meadows are not moving uphill as fast as the trees.””
    Seven years, and Breckheimer talks about ‘climate’.
    Weather.
    This is weather.
    And, of course, living things – like trees and wild flowers – react to weather [as well as climate!].
    As for ‘ecosystems in real trouble’ – change happens.
    Always has, and always will [up to the heat death of the universe, if that does happen].

    An interesting methodology, which may have some merit, though probably better over a longer period.
    But otherwise a big nothing-burger, except for ‘Send more grant moneys’, of course.

    Auto

    • How about data from 1900-1950. Prior to 1950 is when most of the world’s glaciers ended up where they are now. Since then, it’s been pretty mild by comparison.

    • “Conditions in 2015 were an outlier by today’s standards; by the end of this century, scientist predict that 2015-style early snowmelts could be a regular occurrence. ”

      I didn’t think the models predicted anything, they project possibilities that might occur. Perhaps these “scientists” need to read the papers on models rather than just believing news reports.

    • Shhh…they don’t want anyone to notice that 2016 and 2017 bounced back to normal and then some. It spoils their apocalyptic story.

      In fact 2017 had the 7th highest snowpack of the last 40 years at 91.9 inches of snow water equivalent and 2019/2020 is on track for snow water equivalent well above average, possibly besting 2017. The trend since 1980 appears to be increasing; exactly the opposite of the claims made by Breckheimer, et al. To be fair, those are the kinds of crazy conclusions you come to when your head is buried in your models instead of looking at measurements of the natural world.

      See NOAA Paradise SNOTEL page here: https://www.nwrfc.noaa.gov/snow/snowplot.cgi?AFSW1

  13. They expect the bloom to change by “months”? This is science fiction. The only way it could change by months is with a major shift in the continental plate brining Mt. Rainier closer to the equator.

  14. How about taking a lesson from Japan and following Mother Nature’s lead.

    The blossom forecast (桜前線, sakura-zensen) “cherry blossom front” is announced each year by the weather bureau, and is watched carefully by those planning hanami as the blossoms only last a week or two. link

    Declare a flower festival for when the flowers are actually blooming, not by when we want them to bloom.

  15. “There’s a real question whether — or how much — we should intervene to protect meadows, by clearing trees through active management, for example, as we keep pushing ecosystems with climate change, and those systems keep getting further out of equilibrium,”

    The proposition that there such a thing as a state of perfect Equilibrium in nature is a concoction of environmentalists. The natural world is always in a state of flux.

    • I missed the “clearing trees” bit.
      The Mount Rainier folks are really NOT into cutting trees.

  16. When did these flowers bloom in the MAP, before the Little Ice Age?

    And why is it that the LIA is seen as the climate we should aspire to?

  17. If the winter snows melt earlier and the flowers bloom sooner, does that not mean Spring will also arriive sooner? This will bring a longer tourist season to the area. Sounds like a win/win situation. It’s all good.

  18. This is truly the dumbest global warming study EVER! I manage to hike the meadows every year as I have for almost 30 years, and yet me and most of the 3 million people who visit Mt Rainier in the Summer manage to always find beautiful flower conditions. Short of coming in September or early June, it’s quite literally impossible not to hit meadows filled with flowers. Amazingly some years it snows so much that the meadows don’t melt until August and a few years they melt in late June, but they are by far the exception. And when that happens the genius hikers just adjust the altitude of their hikes a bit.
    More idiocy: Do the “scientists” realize this is I think the snowiest location in the CONUS? Also, it’s not like this is a remote place. No need for GPS, the same meadows have been popular hiking locations for over a hundred years!! There are countless pictures and accounts of Paradise Meadows taken by multiple generations of photographers since Ansel Adams and before. I have seen a lot of them, and I didn’t notice any changes. Neither had anyone else, until these “scientists” came along.

    The idiocy of this study and article just literally blew my head off. Proof that literally anything will be funded and printed, and unfortunately taken seriously, as long as it mentions AGW.

  19. Next the UW biology team ponders, why do people take all their wildflower pictures in the day time and not at night?

  20. I wonder why they didn’t report on the years after 2015? Here’s why:

    2017 had the 7th highest snowpack of the last 40 years at 91.9 inches of snow water equivalent and 2019/2020 is on track for snow water equivalent well above average, possibly besting 2017. The trend since 1980 appears to be increasing; exactly the opposite of the claims made by Breckheimer, et al. To be fair, those are the kinds of crazy conclusions you come to when your head is buried in your models instead of observing and measuring the natural world.

    See NOAA Paradise SNOTEL page here: https://www.nwrfc.noaa.gov/snow/snowplot.cgi?AFSW1

    • stinkerp
      Many thanks.
      I did – sort of – wonder whether that explained why the ‘data’ ended at 2015.
      Now I know.
      And no kudos to UW, whatsoever.
      Again, my thanks!

      Auto

    • Except for the fact that Cliff Mass’ model simulations predict warming that is roughly 300% higher than trends measured at stations around the Pacific Northwest, it’s pretty accurate.

      Check for yourself here:
      https://climate.washington.edu/climate-data/trendanalysisapp/

      And that data is from US Historical Climate Network (USHCN) stations, “adjusted” to counter urban heat island effects (probably poorly) not US Climate Reference Network stations, which run cooler.

      It should be abundantly clear to anyone paying attention that the CMIP5 models have been shown to be unequivocally and utterly worthless at predicting temperatures. Yet climate scientists continue to use them. Strange.

      • @stinker

        Two things….
        1) Cliff showed results from the unlikely RCP 8.5 scenario, “So consider what I am about to show as the worst case—and that the actual changes will not be so extreme.”

        2) “Except for the fact that Cliff Mass’ model simulations predict warming that is roughly 300% higher than trends measured at stations around the Pacific Northwest”

        What starting date are you using? It makes a big difference. The 1970 -2019 trend, for example, is much higher than for the full record:

        iD: 0.54 F
        MT: 0.51 F
        OR: 0.44 F
        WA: 0.41 F

        These numbers (projected linearly) give more than 2.0 C warming by 2100. With some acceleration…..?

  21. I wonder if the authors designed the study before analyzing the data. Certainly the analysis of only 6 years worth of data cannot have data that is applicable to climate change. I hope this is not part of a doctoral study. If it is, it is absurd. But, hey, my son got his PhD in fly fishing, so anything can work if it has value.

  22. by the end of this century, scientist predict that </em"

    . . . most of the people that hiked in Mt. R. in 2015 will be dead.

    {With many Washington Trail Association volunteers, I worked rehabilitating
    the Mount Fremont Lookout Trail in 2016 — 6,400 to 7,000 feet. Great trail.
    Great views. Great wildflowers.}

  23. These subalpine ecosystems are in real trouble,” said Breckheimer. “For example, climate change is allowing trees to encroach into the meadows at Mount Rainier and other sites across the West, and the meadows are not moving uphill as fast as the trees.

    Oh No! I bet on the wrong horse, again.

  24. ….meadows are not moving uphill as fast as the trees.”

    Stoopid Ents! Slow down!

  25. Y’know, so many of the posts on WUWT seem kind of learned. I don’t think you people are sufficiently concerned with the best interests of humanity here. Climate deniers (that’s you) are dumb, dishonest and wicked. You aren’t fooling anybody with these reasoned arguments and well-written sentences. What have you been doing? Using computer aps to make your writing seem smarter than it is? Did your mom do your homework for you, because we know it wasn’t you.

    I will try to explain this to you again: You are anti-Science, hostile to change, interested only in short-term profits at the expense of the well-being of future generations, and not only that but you’re not show business celebrities. So shut up.

  26. Climate change allows trees to encroach … Those nasty trees! Nothing but encrouching.

    You couldn’t make it up.

  27. “There’s a real question whether — or how much — we should intervene to protect meadows, by clearing trees through active management, for example, as we keep pushing ecosystems with climate change, and those systems keep getting further out of equilibrium,” said Breckheimer. “If visitor peak and flower peaks are at different times, it might affect public support for some of these measures for how public lands are managed in the face of climate change.”
    They learned nothing from meddling with Yellowstone. Leave it alone for crying out loud.

    • No one is touching the meadows. And they are not receding. Anyone at all who has gone hiking in the park more than once knows this study is the worst kind of junk. In a normal world this garbage study would have never seen the light of day.
      There are few places in the Seattle area more consistently visited by hikers than Mt Rainier, and it has been so for a century. The meadows continue to be where they are with no changes of any kind. Anyone can pick up a used copy of “50 hikes in mt Rainier” book from the early 80s, and see exactly the same things in the same places as they were described in the book almost a half century ago (with the exception of the Paradise Glacier ice caves, which collapsed in the early 90s).
      This study shows everything that is wrong with AGW-related “science”

  28. What I learned:
    People are too stupid to figure out that flowers bloom when they bloom, so we should do “whatever it takes” to make sure nature learns to behave as dictated by our beliefs. Those flowers WILL bloom when expected OR ELSE.

  29. Oh dear, when the subalpine meadows have reached the peak and are being smothered by forests from below, what shall we do then?

  30. Wildflower blooms are variable when clocked on the human calendar — but not when clocked by Nature. Nature doesn’t care what the calendar date is, it cares when conditions are right.

    Like the Cherry Blossoms in Washington D.C. — the best way to handle tourists it to post updates regularly on predicted best viewing times.

    As for the tree line and meadows — lack of regular natural wildfire allows the trees to begin to overrun meadows. That’s the way it is…..

    Let a few wildfire rip up those slopes and the encroaching trees will be burnt off the meadows and the flowers will come back even stronger and more beautiful than ever.

    • Kip, there is no encroachment by trees. The meadows are right at timberline, most vegetation is of the dwarf kind, and small stands of trees dot very large meadows, decreasing as altitude increases. The meadows are buried under dozens of feet of snow each year which typically doesn’t melt until July, and covers them again by late September, early October. The early and deep snow insulates the plants in the meadows from cold temperatures, and allows the gorgeous flower displays each year. The very short growing season keeps any tree from growing much if at all, except in more sheltered places. In other words, the way timberline vegetation is the world over.
      In terms of fires, I have been at Paradise during some strong heat waves, and have seen trees burst into flames when hit by lightning. They are always allowed to burn. Everything about this “study” is junk and misleading, although flat out lies is a better description

  31. Jack says: Snow “… covers them again by late September, early October.”

    In 2016 when working on the trails out of Sunrise, we saved a re-gravel and step repair project just out of the parking lot 200 yards. We worked in the morning, could have done a bit more but snow was an issue and some folks did not have all-wheel drive. I think that was October 2nd. NPS closed the road to Sunrise at 4PM.

    We worked up there from early July. (Washington Trails Association; WTA)

  32. Why is it that biologists seem stuck on this idea that there was an “ideal” moment of all ecosystems (like 1975) that must be rigorously adhered to forever. Me personally, I’d like a return to the Pennsylvanian with 20′ dragonflies and ferns the size of trees, but hey, life moves on (wish biologists and climate “modellers” could do the same….

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