More than 50 years ago, an ecologist, Robert Whittaker, studied the distribution and abundance of plants at high elevations in the Siskiyou Mountains of Oregon. Like many early ecologists, he was interested in what grew where, and what controlled the distribution of plants. Mountains were a convenient natural laboratory because many different natural habitats occurred in close proximity. Whittaker’s field notes were left in an archive at Cornell University, when he died in 1980.
Now, Ellen Damschen and her collaborators have resampled some of Whittaker’s old plots, to see what has changed over the past 50 years. They found declines in species that have northern affinity; these plants simply couldn’t survive in Oregon anymore. And, they found that species normally confined to warm, dry soils had increased. These changes are indicative of the changes in Oregon’s climate during the past few decades.
“The only reason we can model climate change and understand the gravity of what we’re facing, is because there’s archived data.”
A member of the sampling team, Kerissa Fuccillo, now heads the education program at the Ashokun Center in Olivebridge, New York:
“There’s weather station data that has been meticulously kept for so long. Phenology data – we have records of phenology data, which is looking at the timing of life cycle events in the natural world, dating back 5,000 years. Grape harvest records from 600 years ago in Europe. And we can take a look at that data and then match it to climate data.”
We can expect a warmer, drier climate throughout much of the western U.S., as our climate changes through this century. Even the plants can tell.
Full interview with Kerissa Fuccillo, who heads the education program at the Ashokun Center in Olivebridge, New York…[audio:http://wamcradio.org/EarthWise/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Fuccillo_edited_web.mp3|titles=Fuccillo_edited_web]
Photo, taken on December 19, 2012, courtesy of Bureau of Land Management (Oregon) via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. Support for Earth Wise comes from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY, with partial support from the Field Day Foundation.