Vulnerable Ecosystems, Resilient Life Forms

The Yukon’s iconic mountains have captured the attention of visitors from around the world and can easily impart a sense of permanence.

For many of us they are alluring because they represent a timeless part of the natural world that makes us feel small, and maybe just a tiny bit insignificant. But this impression of invulnerability is misleading. While the mountains themselves will endure, the tundra and alpine ecosystems that cling to their slopes are exceedingly vulnerable.

One increasingly topical threat to these ecosystems is climate change, and the Yukon has a sizable population of researchers studying its effects.

I worked for two years at one of these research sites, known locally as Pika Camp.

Pika Camp is a small field camp in the Ruby Range Mountains of the Yukon, typically occupied by five or six people. Despite its small size, it has a long history of research, and has hosted some impressive visitors, including writers and filmmakers from Canadian Geographic, National Geographic, BBC and the Discovery Channel.

Facilities are simple but comfortable – solar energy powers research equipment, while two weatherhaven tents provide storage, a space to cook, and shelter from bouts of bad weather.

A plastic igloo, known affectionately as “the pod,” provides storage and serves as a field laboratory. Tents provide shelter, privacy, and a bedroom for the season.

Since the camp was established in 1995 by Dr. David Hik, from the University of Alberta, researchers have documented advancing treelines and shrublines, and have used a variety of warming experiments to understand the ways in which the tundra and nearby tree/shrublines may be affected by climate change.

The experiments that I assisted with tested, among other things, the effect of simulated warming on competition between alpine plants. The goal was to be able to predict the future composition of tundra flora.

For good reason, research at the camp is usually summer-only.

Although Pika Camp’s climate is tame compared to what researchers in the icefields of the St. Elias Mountains face, weather can still be challenging. My first season was exceptionally cold, windy, and rainy – we had snow in June, July, and August, and several week-long stretches of persistent rain, snow, and fog that confined us to camp. And one evening in 2012, we were slammed by nearly 70km per hour winds until the early morning hours. Tenting was a powerful reminder that, with fast enough winds, just about anything produces lift.

Working in these conditions imparts a special appreciation for the organisms that live here year-round. Researchers depend upon a plethora of support systems during the summer, from propane stoves to satellite phones, laptops, clothing, boots, and food. Animals and plants of the valley have no such luxury. As a result, the individual species that live in this environment must be simultaneously resilient and adaptive. For a pika to survive the winter, enough sustenance must be frantically gathered during the short (and sometime stormy) summer.

And winter weather is even more extreme.

In January 2013, a massive windstorm ripped through the valley. For 16 hours, wind gusts did not drop below 70km per hour, and maximum gusts were an incredible 113km per hour. The white pod, the only structure left assembled year round, was ripped off its anchorage and broken into pieces.

The thought of tiny pikas cowering under cold rocks and snow while these winds rage around them is jarring, and difficult to reconcile with their frail appearance.

But this is the nature of the tundra; although the ecosystem is fragile as a whole, the individual creatures are not. Battling the wind is old hat.

But as the tundra warms, its challenges change, and its species may find themselves perfectly adapted to conditions they no longer face – leaving them cruelly threatened by their former specialization.

This is why alpine research sites like Pika Camp are so important – although the impacts of a changing climate are not exclusive to the tundra, that’s where they are felt most immediately.

A robust research presence in these environments speeds our understanding of changes that will, ultimately, affect us all.

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