High and Dry?

Researchers conduct fieldwork in high alpine wetlands below Mt. Rainier. (Photo: ©Maureen Ryan, University of Washington)

FOR as long as she can remember, Maureen Ryan has been fascinated by mountains. As an English major, Maureen used to spend her time outdoors as a mountaineering guide. This eventually led to a passion for mountain wetland conservation and a career in science.

“I love the mountains,” says Ryan. “I’ve spent my entire adult life in the mountains, fascinated by species in extreme environments.”

Now a freshwater ecologist and conservation biologist with the University of Washington, Ryan is one of several researchers spearheading conservation in the Northwest’s montane—the scientific term for mountains—wetlands in an effort to track how their amphibian residents are responding to our region’s changing climate. 

Each year from Mt. Rainier to Mt. St. Helens the seasons run their cycle as the snow perched atop the Northwest’s majestic, high elevations melts, eventually winding its way to the Pacific Ocean. Along its gravity-propelled journey, this water fills montane lakes and streams, providing essential habitat for species such as alpine frogs and salamanders, while also feeding streams carrying young salmon—not to mention fresh water for towns and farms—downstream. Sadly, this process is now threatened by climate change, which has been diminishing the region’s snowpack. Especially imperiled are montane amphibians. Here Ryan and others hope to make a difference by providing a guide to help land managers develop adaptation strategies. But Ryan says studying montane wetlands is challenging, and for that reason they remain one of the most under-examined ecosystems on Earth.

 “Many people find that montane wetlands are too complicated to measure at a large scale,” says Ryan.

The problem, according to Ryan, is this: effectively studying montane wetlands requires that a huge amount of research happen on site, which has often meant researchers trekking through hard-to-access, rough mountain terrain, a barrier to entry if ever there was one. Recognizing this difficulty, Northwest researchers are collaborating to tackle this challenge.

The effort began in 2011, when Alan Hamlet, then with the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group, began a unique climate impacts project. Hamlet wanted to understand how climate change was affecting montane wetlands in Oregon, Washington, and California. He later received further funding from the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NPLCC) and the Northwest Climate Science Center (NW CSC) to computer model the region’s montane wetlands.

Hamlet’s effort has produced a series of computer tools, simulating historical wetland behavior with climate variability. He then used these tools to help assess the impacts of future projected climate change into the 2040s and 2080s. His results project future decades will see warmer and drier summers, which, coupled with consequent reductions to snowpack, will lead to water draining from the wetlands much earlier in the year, reducing wetland water levels, increasing rates and likelihood of drying, and shortening periods of time that wetlands will hold water. These results paved the way for tackling the unique challenges of montane wetlands.

Later, funding from the NPLCC allowed Ryan to extend the application of models developed by Hamlet’s research to specific sites in Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Parks, where researchers are exploring how the drying of high-elevation wetlands results in habitat loss for species, including frogs and salamanders. These species are hidden gems, says Ryan, dependent on heavy snow cover and high-water ponds.

“I’d spent years in these mountains.” Ryan adds, “I can’t believe how many of those little ponds I walked by without noticing them.”

Ryan and Hamlet’s work is now providing a sort of playbook to help land managers develop adaptation strategies. Managers at North Cascades National Park have already employed the project’s results into their management practice for dealing with introduced fish species. The study is also being expanded into the Midwest, focusing on Indiana and Illinois’ Kankakee River basin.

Continued support from climate-science agencies and the work of climate scientists are producing practical results that will continue to assist the preservation of montane landscapes, which play an integral role in the functioning of environments throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“This project was such a clear example of one where we might see something proactive, on public lands, and in collaboration with agencies,” says Ryan. “It has been a great opportunity to contribute to, learn from, and work with folks who think about these landscapes deeply and have been working for decades to protect them.”

The NPLCC and NW CSC provided support for this project in an effort to carry out our missions to develop and provide climate science information to inform management decisions. Coordination on this project helped advance our missions through efficient collaboration and leveraging of funds.

Sierra Nevada, Yellow-Legged Frog, proposed for federal listing (Photo: ©Natalie McNearFlickr Creative Commons)