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The alpine zone: A rare glimpse of the past

August 30, 2008
By MIKE LYNCH, Enterprise Outdoors Writer

Standing alongside the trail just a few feet below the summit of Mount Marcy, Brendan Wiltse leaned over and pointed to some waxy green diapensia growing in a clump no higher than a sidewalk curb.

"This is one of the classic alpine species in the Northeast," said Wiltse, whose job as a summit steward is to alert hikers to the fragile and rare nature of alpine plants such as this one.

Diapensia is an arctic circumboreal plant, which means it could be found in places such as northern Canada, Greenland and Siberia. In the Adirondacks, it is found on only the tallest peaks, such as Basin, Haystack, Algonquin and Marcy.

Article Photos

These rocks were placed by summit stewards at the top of Mount Marcy to help prevent erosion.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)

There are only 19 Adirondack summits with alpine meadows, according to Tim Howard, Director of Science for the New York Natural Heritage Program. Those meadows consist of 172 acres.

The alpine zone dates back 12,000 years - or just after the last ice age. During this period, glaciers retreated and melted, leaving behind an arctic tundra landscape.

As the climate warmed, new species of trees and plants took over the lower elevations. Only the summits of the highest mountains retained the arctic conditions.

Fact Box

More about the alpine zone

Snowbank communities

In areas of the mountain that receive the least amount of wind, snow is packed into gullies and crevices. Plants living in "snowbank communities" have damper, richer soils than the rest of the summit because snow leaves behind nutrients and water.

In some of these areas, you'll find plants that also live at lower elevations, including goldenrod and Indian poke.

The one lowland plant community that is relatively well represented in the alpine zone is found in bogs. Black spruce, leatherleaf and the carnivorous sundew are all plants found in bogs and in the alpine zone. Bogs, like summits, often lack nutrient-rich soil.

The krummholz zone

The krummholz zone, which is found above 3,500 feet, is another good example of how wind affects the plantlife.

Here, cloud ice forms on the windward side of the trees, often breaking off branches on the stunted balsam firs and black spruces. Branches on the opposite side often survive, giving some trees a "flag-like" appearance. Other trees lose their lower branches, making it resemble a broom.

There are only 10 to 20 occurrences of krummholz zones statewide, according to New York Natural Heritage.

Today, this "ancient" landscape can generally be found above elevations of 4,500 to 4,800 feet.

In the alpine zone, the growing season is short, the thin layer of soil is generally nutrient-poor, and the winds can be especially strong.

Mosses and lichens cling to the bedrock. Ferns, grasses and flowers grow in meadows, and you'll even find some stunted black spruces.

"What you have is a remnant population on top of the mountains," said Julia Goren, who has researched alpine vegetation extensively for the New York Natural Heritage Program.

Mount Marcy, which is 5,444 feet in elevation, is actually home to 23 rare plants, including diapensia. The Adirondacks have 35 rare alpine plants.

In the alpine zone, plants have to deal with an environment where high winds steal heat and water from the vegetation. Because of factors such as these, plants must be extremely self-protective.

Diapensia is definitely capable of that. It grows low to the ground like a mat, and its leaves are dark to absorb heat and grow close together.

Wiltse compared the leaves to a hiker's windbreaker because of their ability to shield the plant from the elements.

"If you were to stick a thermometer into the diapensia, it would be warmer than the air," Wiltse said.

Of the alpine plants found here, perhaps Boott's rattlesnake root is the rarest. Worldwide, this plant's range is restricted to New York and New England. There are less than 20 locations worldwide where Boott's rattlesnake root grows. About a half-dozen of them are in the Adirondacks.

Another rare plant is dwarf willow. It was actually thought to be extinct in New York until it was discovered in the late 1990s by a summit steward.

Since at least the 1950s, scientists have tried to keep tabs on rare plants such as Boott's rattlesnake root and diapensia. One of those spearheading the studies was botanist E.H. Ketchledge.

One of Ketchledge's projects was to run transects across the tops of Marcy, Algonquin, Boundary and Iroqouis.

In recent years, Sean Robinson has continued that research. Robinson is a former summit steward and graduate student at the Syracuse College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where Ketchledge once taught.

Robinson said many of the findings have been positive. For instance, he has found successional plants growing in areas where there were once mosses.

"I haven't seen a loss of species on any of the transects overall," Robinson said.

But he also noted the transects are in areas away from hikers, one of the primary threats to alpine vegetation.

Hikers are generally considered one of the biggest, if not the biggest threat, to alpine vegetation.

When people go off the summit trails, they trample plants and compact soils that are often only two to 12 inches deep. This can have a major impact at places like Mount Marcy, which can attract up to 200 hikers on a clear summer day.

That's why the Adirondack Mountain Club and Nature Conservancy started the summit steward program two decades ago. This program hires stewards to stand atop select mountains - usually Marcy and Algonquin - and talk to hikers about the alpine zone.

They also do trail work, using stones brought up by hikers to mark the trails and hold back eroding banks. On Marcy, they also ran a string fence alongside a particularly sensitive area that had been trampled in the past. But mainly they are there to inform the public.

"Our main goal is to educate people," Wiltse said "Many people don't know how fragile the vegetation is."

Another potential threat to the vegetation is climate change, which Howard is also studying. If temperatures in the Adirondacks rise in the next few decades, it could negatively affect the alpine vegetation.

Some compare the alpine zones to the glaciers in Alaska because of their vulnerability to warming temperatures.

"(The vegetation) is already at the extreme edge of what they are capable of tolerating," Howard said.



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