Pioneer Mountains contribute to worldwide climate study

This story was published in the Montana Standard.

Standing near the wind-whipped summit of Mount Keokirk, at 9,787 feet, Martha Apple lays a one-meter wooden grid over the vegetation at her feet.

Jarle Inge Holten, left, and Montana Tech geophysicist Xiaobing Zhou near the summit of Mount Keokirk

Jarle Inge Holten, left, and Montana Tech geophysicist Xiaobing Zhou near the summit of Mount Keokirk

The Montana Tech biology professor makes sure the grid is placed in the exact spot as on prior visits here. Then she goes about examining the plants within, such as Siberian aster and legumes flowering in the late summer.

Once a year Apple drives about an hour on a dirt road and hikes the last steep miles to reach this point in the Pioneer Mountains, southwest of Butte. She comes to see how climate change is affecting plants in this high-mountain ecosystem. It’s one among 116 alpine sites around the world, from the Pioneers to Nepal, monitored by scientists as part of a project called GLORIA, or the Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments.

“Plants live where they live because they can,” Apple says. If the plants require colder temperatures, “the seeds that have landed upslope will live and the ones that are downslope, where it’s warmer, may not. (Plants) may move upslope in response to climate change.”

On this day, Apple is joined by Norwegian ecologists Sverre Lundemo of Uppsala University in Sweden and Jarle Inge Holten, a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (for which IPCC scientists shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007), as well as Apple’s husband James and her colleague Xiaobing Zhou.

They all hunker around the grid and catalogue every plant, occasionally debating how best to describe the size of a bloom or characterize the soil between two tiny stems.

Then, after more than an hour, Apple puts down her pen, picks up the grid, and places it down several feet away. There are four such sites, and hundreds of tiny plants to survey.

Holten was among the scientists who launched GLORIA at the University of Vienna in 2001 to establish long-term study sites in alpine environments and watch for symptoms of climate change. In Europe, GLORIA researchers have gathered enough data to establish what they had inferred: Plants are moving upslope. Between 2001 and 2008, the studied plants had migrated upward an average of 2.7 meters. They published their conclusions in the journal Science in April 2012.

“This finding confirms the hypothesis that a rise in temperatures drives alpine flora to migrate upwards,” wrote Holten and fellow scientists. “As a result, rival species are threatened by competitors, which are migrating to higher altitudes. These changes pose a threat to high-mountain ecosystems in the long and medium term.”

Apple suspects GLORIA data will reveal similar trends in Montana.

In addition to Mount Keokirk, she monitors a site on Mount Fleecer, about 20 miles southwest of Butte, while U.S. Geological Survey scientists monitor four high-mountain sites in Glacier National Park.

Holten expects GLORIA’s worldwide monitoring network to continue to grow.

“It’s simple and cheap, but scientifically sound, and I believe in that,” he says. “And it has many supporters from all the world. And we need it.”

The simplicity of GLORIA’s mission allows a wide range of scientists — ecologists, geographers, geophysicists, ethnobotanists, plant historians — to participate. Holten and Apple say they’re excited to see what approaches researchers from around the world will apply.

“There are a lot of very complex studies waiting to be done, and all sorts of tools — satellite imaging, computer modeling,” Apple says.

She adjusts her sunglasses.

“Or the hands-on, tromping up the mountain side, see-what’s-there kind of thing.”