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Montana Tech professor, students present at AGU Fall Meeting


January 22, 2015

By Nicky Ouellet, graduate student, University of Montana School of Journalism

professor martha apple and research team assistants work in Glacier National Park High in the backcountry of Glacier National Park, something strange happens to the landscape. As the mountains rise and forests give way to open screefields, the land develops stripes, like a zebra. A deep green and tan zebra.

This is not what Martha Apple had come to study, or even expected to find. The Montana Tech biology professor, along with two undergraduate students, had come to study rare alpine plants clinging to life along the edges of snowfields. The data collected from the 2014 field season would add to an ongoing monitoring effort of the effects of climate change on marginal alpine plants, work Apple began in 2012.

But the stripes at Siyeh Pass were too unusual to be ignored.

Apple presented her research of these stripes, known as solifluction terraces, at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco in December, 2014. Her research adds to a broader discussion of how sensitive alpine plant communities will react to the effects of climate change.

Solifluction terraces are series of steps and risers, created by alternating periods of freezing and thawing. Common lower-elevation plants, such as mosses and small willows, grow on the risers, forming large spongy mats in the wind-protected lee.

But rare alpine plants, like the pygmy poppy, which has only twenty distinct populations in its growing range, grow abundantly in the exposed, rocky treads. Apple found a 50 percent disparity in growing patterns, with rare plants accounting for 2 percent of total plant growth in the risers and 52 percent in the treads.

“I think that it’s important for people to know that these plants, really the whole ecosystem, revolves in part around the nutrition and water availability in the plant community,” said Macy Ricketts, one of Apple’s undergraduate research assistants. Ricketts, majoring in molecular biology and minoring in technical communication, was charged with the tedious task of sorting and weighing soils. She hopes to find a link between soil particle shape and plant species to predict which plant species will disappear from an area first.

Lindsay Carlson, another of Apple’s undergraduate research assistants, recently completed her bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology. Her personal research of how wildfire frequency affects plant growth in the Bob Marshall Wilderness attacks the questions surrounding climate change from another angle.

“I’m trying to get an overall picture of what it’s going to do to the overall ecosystem because that’s something we don’t really know,” she said.

At the Fall Meeting, Apple and Ricketts fielded questions from peers about their study of Glacier’s rare alpine plants. But their work is far from over. Apple hopes to continue monitoring these plants as warmer land temperatures force them higher up hillslopes.

She also hopes to find the functional characteristics that allow these plants to grow in the marginal microclimates along glaciers and snowfields. That means another summer of training students, some without science backgrounds (like this author!), for fieldwork.

“It can take a minute to think it up and at least several months to do the research,” said Apple.

Despite the slow nature of scientific progress, Ricketts remains optimistic that this line of study will allow for a quick understanding of the impacts of climate change. With their high and in some cases rapid sensitivity to changes in temperature, water availability, snow cover and soils, rare alpine plants provide a strong indication of how the ecosystem will change over time.

For more about Apple and her students’ research, visit Rickett’s and Carlson’s blogs, respectively at Adventure Is Out There and Institute on Ecosystems Summer Climatological Research Experience.