The difference a year makes

baldy 18 june 2016

Summer is a risky season in the alpine. Plants can grow only in the limited time after the snow melts, and often die back as soon as the soil becomes too dry or the autumn snows begin again. The timing of snow melt is very unpredictable too. The amount of snow a mountain receives is important, but so too is the amount of dust that settles on it in late winter. This year at my site we had very little snow, but also very little dust. This photo was taken on June 18th by Jacob Heiling, and you can see my research site is still completely covered.

A week later we hiked up to the site to see how things were progressing. Most of the snow was finally gone, but meter-deep patches still remained on the landscape. As the snow contracts in late winter, it picks up gravel on its surface and produces some fascinating geometrical patterns.

last snow

The snow had also damaged my weather station, which I left to over-winter in place. A few of the sensor arms were crushed, either by the weight of the snowpack or through the action of the wind. But the datalogger and sensors were still functional, and I found out the snow only fully melted there on June 25th.

weather station

Despite most of the snow disappearing only a few days prior, the plants had already started growing, with a few Lupinus and Ivesia individuals sending up leaves. The growing season is precious time.

new growth

Now July has come, and we are back to begin intensive monitoring of these plants.


The snow has completely sublimed or melted at the site, and summer is here.

no snow

Last year at this point in July we found hundreds of Lupinus and Senecio seedlings in the permanent plots. But this year things don’t look so good.


Most of the lupines that grew last year failed to produce any above-ground growth, and nearly all of the seedlings are just dead. I counted only three seedlings on a quick walk through the site yesterday.


And many of the other species don’t look very good either – the leaves on this Phacelia are yellowing already. Mortality will be high this year, and I am looking forward to making a full census of the site in another week.

site weather

From a distance, the almost-bare slopes of this mountain seem not to change. But life comes and goes in the alpine. A year does make a difference.

One Comment Add yours

  1. ceresbarros says:

    Just arrived from a few days of botany trips in the French Alps, where we observed similar dynamics. Thanks for the cool pics 🙂

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