Scientists study climate change in Adirondacks

Plant samples gathered 150 years ago may hold key data

September 08, 2002|By Dina Cappiello | Dina Cappiello,ALBANY TIMES UNION

ALBANY, N.Y. - Deep within the New York State Museum sits an ordinary gray cabinet, a sort of botanical time capsule storing fragments of life from the Adirondack High Peaks of 150 years ago.

Inside, 40 shoebox-sized cases stacked top to bottom contain the mosses and liverworts that clung to the tips of New York's tallest mountains in the middle of the 19th century.

A century later, it is these specimens - brown and brittle and on the verge of crumbling into dust - that may hold the clues to the future of the 300- square-mile High Peaks Wilderness Area in upstate New York.

Because if global warming does happen, it's likely that it will affect the state's highest mountains first, including Mount Marcy, the state's highest at 5,344 feet. And the simple plants housed in the museum cabinet may be the first to disappear.

"The alpine zone of the High Peaks is New York's most fragile ecosystem in terms of the potential for global warming," said Norton Miller, a principal scientist at the museum, who is retracing the footsteps of C.H. Peck, the botanist responsible for the museum's 150-year-old collection. Peck, who lived in Sand Lake, gathered thousands of specimens from the High Peaks in the 1800s, as part of a statewide survey of New York's resources.

"What will happen very likely ... is that the treeline will move up the mountain farther until all the alpine plants disappear," Miller said.

In three summers of combing the High Peaks on his hands and knees, using a hand lens held by a thin rope around his neck, Miller has been unable to find several of the 45 species collected by Peck on his journeys.

Temperature - predicted to rise by about 4 degrees Fahrenheit in New York by 2100, based on computer projections - will change where certain trees and plants can live, and whether some that now grow on the peaks will exist at all.

"The High Peaks are particularly interesting because ... you change the climate a little bit, and you are likely to see consequences that are a little more dramatic," said Stephen Jackson, a professor of botany at the University of Wyoming who earned his doctorate studying plant fossils on the muddy bottoms of six High Peaks lakes in the 1970s and 1980s.

Changes over time

Jackson's hunch is based upon years of research that pieced together how High Peaks' trees and plants responded to the temperature swings over the past 12,000 years, or about the time that the glaciers covering much of the Adirondacks melted.

About 11,000 years ago, in a cooler period, the vegetation at the base of the mountains looked similar to the 80 acres of tundra left today on a half-dozen of the highest summits.

Between 4,000 and 9,000 years ago, a warming caused hemlocks and sugar maples to migrate farther upslope. Three thousand years ago, the balsam fir and red spruce forests that characterize the High Peaks experience today didn't exist.

"A climatic threshold was passed that let that forest come into being," Jackson said. "What this perspective does for me is say ... how far can we change the climate and still see red spruce and balsam fir?"

The reason the 46 highest mountains of the Adirondack Park will be so susceptible to future warming is the trees and plants living on the slopes naturally teeter on climate extremes.

A few degrees difference in temperature creates sharp boundaries among species. In a few vertical feet, one forest can morph into another. At the very top, whipping winds and ice shards limit the size of the trees that are able to grow, and much of the summit is reduced to a tundra community of low-growing alpine plants.

Any change in the environment can cause a shift.

But models predicting what future climate change could mean for the Adirondacks are conflicting. Some forecast that if New York's temperatures climb by several degrees, there will be widespread forest changes. Others project no change at all.

"It is not based on the best data," said Neil Pederson, a doctoral candidate at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University's Tree Ring Lab.

Pederson is among a handful of scientists, including Jackson and Miller, researching the climate's past to understand the future. While all are focused on the transition zones that occur between forest types, they are using different methods.

Task is complex

"It's difficult to make climatic interpretations divorced from everything else," Miller said. "It's one element in the overall story of why plants and animals live where they do."

To understand how global warming works, it's easiest to imagine a greenhouse. The gases that make up the atmosphere are the glass. The forest, parks, cities and industry on Earth's surface make up the "plants." Gases emitted from the plants get trapped beneath the glass, warming the inside of the house.

This greenhouse effect, first described by a physicist 100 years ago, is responsible for the mild temperatures on Earth that made life possible.

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