Rediscovering a foundation of ecology: Back to Glacier Bay, Alaska, 100 years later
By Brian Buma (University of Alaska Southeast), Glenn Wright (University of Alaska Southeast), John Krapek (University of Alaska Southeast), and Sarah Bisbing (California Polytechnical State University).
MethodsIn 2016 researchers used a combination of hand-drawn maps from 1916, compasses, models to adjust for magnetic declination changes, field notes, historical photographs, kayaks, and metal detectors to relocate the original plots. Each plot was re-described by identifying, counting, and mapping each individual plant within it, successfully extending the original Cooper study into its 100th year. The research was funded by the National Geographic Society, the University of Alaska Southeast, and logistical support was provided by the National Park Service.
FindingsThe plots show a less predictable pattern of succession than similar plots elsewhere in Glacier Bay. Many of the plots were invaded early (1920’s) by willows (Salix species), and those willows are still present. Other species later-successional species such as alder and spruce are rarer, a surprise given that the land surface is now approximately 130 years old. While plots have shown a general increase in the number of species with time (increasing biodiversity), the plots closer to the mouth of Glacier Bay (farthest from the glaciers and thus older) have shown the greatest increase. We think both patterns are because many plants have difficulty dispersing the great distances to the upper reaches of the Bay, and early pioneer species like willows have been able to almost completely monopolize resources and resist invasion by other species, at least for the first 130 years or so.
This record provides a unique opportunity for researchers to utilize a 100-year record of plant change, available nowhere else in the world, to ask fundamental ecological questions. As global warming and climate change continue, for example, these processes will become more and more relevant.