Snowshoes, Shovels and Science

Ever since I was little, I’ve loved the mountains and snow. Add in a slight obsession with plants and you’ve arrived at my PhD research topic: assessing how sensitive Australian alpine plants are to the effects of climate change. For one part of my research, I’m doing a winter field experiment in which I’m manipulating snow cover to see how alpine plants respond to lower snow depths during winter and earlier snowmelt during spring. 

Nearly all alpine plants are perennial, meaning they live for more than one year. To survive the extreme conditions of winter and early spring, most alpine plants are dependent on snow cover. Think of the snow as a protective, insulating barrier between the plants and the freezing cold, desiccating, windy conditions above.

Pentachondra pumila, Kosciuszko National Park (Image: Casey Gibson)

Pentachondra pumila and view, Kosciuszko National Park (Image: Casey Gibson)

It’s really important to determine what impact low snow conditions are going to have on Australia’s alpine plants, as climate and snow models paint a pretty bleak picture for the future of snow in the Australian Alps. Since the 1950s, the depth and duration of seasonal snow cover in the Snowy Mountains has decreased and this is due to climate change. If we can detect which plants will benefit or suffer under future conditions, we can focus conservation efforts on particular species, functional groups or communities. 

In the mountains, aspect (the direction a slope faces) is really, really important. Moving just tens of meters from the lee side to the windward side of a hill or even a rock can equate to huge differences in snow depth, temperature and exposure. We can also think about the windward aspect as being characterised by early snowmelt, and the lee aspect as associated with late snowmelt.

Plot and snow shovelling (Image: Casey Gibson)

Plot and snow shovelling (Image: Casey Gibson)

My field sites are on early snowmelt slopes in the most widespread (and arguably the showiest) community, tall alpine herbfield. Understanding how the characteristic species in the most widespread community type respond to global change can be a really good indicator of the direction and magnitude of future impacts. 

I am studying a number of species with different growth forms. From herbs like Celmisia costiniana (Snow Daisies), Craspeda costiniana (Billy Buttons), the Kosciuszko endemic Gentianella muelleriana subsp. alpestris (Mueller’s Snow-gentian), to shrubs and subshrubs like Pimelea alpina (Alpine Rice Flower) and the Kosciuszko endemic Nematolepis ovatifolia. This year I’ll be monitoring more species including Pentachondra pumila (Carpet Heath), Poa hiemata and P. costiniana (Snow Grasses), Erigeron nitidusEwartia nubigena (Australian Edelweiss) and Oreomyrhhis eriopoda (Austral Caraway).

 

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Fieldwork for me is a year-round gig. The first part of my commute up the mountain is pretty neat as I get to take the Kosciuszko Express chairlift up from Thredbo Village. When the first snow starts to fall, I strap on my trusty old snowshoes to trudge across the ridgelines to my sites. As the snow accumulates, it’s into the touring skis which makes for a much quicker commute! Then it’s time to shovel snow out of my plots. So. Much. Snow. Shovelling! Winter fieldwork really is something else, especially on a ‘bluebird’ day when it’s just you and the beauty of the snow-covered mountains.

Snow shoes and main range (Image: Casey Gibson)

Snowshoes and main range (Image: Casey Gibson)

Once the snow melts, it’s back into my trusty hiking boots to start monitoring plant survival, phenology and growth. This means lots of measuring stems, counting leaves, flower buds, flowers, and fruits. Spending summer surrounded by meadows full of beautiful alpine wildflowers can be aesthetically overwhelming. Luckily I’ve had some excellent volunteers so far to help out and share in the experience.

Main range (Image: Casey Gibson)

Main range (Image: Casey Gibson)

If you look at the alpine landscape during the snow-free period, you can see a mosaic of different plant communities. In fact, at least 56 vegetation communities have been identified above the treeline in the Australian Alps! To learn more about the fantastically unique flora of the Australian Alps, I highly recommend checking out the ‘Kosciuszko Alpine Flora’ or you can pop over to my new instagram account, alpine_flora_of_australia

References

Costin, A. B., Gray, M., Totterdell, C. & Wimbush, D. (2000) Kosciuszko Alpine Flora. CSIRO Publishing

McDougall, K. & Walsh, N. (2007) Treeless vegetation of the Australian Alps. Cunninghamia, 10(1), 1-57.

Sánchez-Bayo, F. & Green, K., 2013. Australian snowpack disappearing under the influence of global warming and solar activity. Arctic, antarctic, and alpine research, 45(1), 107–118. 

Williams, R. & Camac, J. (2016) EcoCheck: Australia’s Alps are cool, but the heat is on. The Conversation, accessed 9 March 2018 https://theconversation.com/ecocheck-australias-alps-are-cool-but-the-heat-is-on-56997.

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