Subalpine Vegetation Monitoring

Two people kneeling in subalpine plot counting seedlings with vegetation in fall colors in background
Counting seedlings in a subalpine plot at North Cascades National Park

NPS Photo

Importance & Issues

Expansive landscapes covered by alpine and subalpine vegetation communities are iconic features of mountain parks of the Pacific Northwest. These vegetation communities are subject to emerging threats including global climate change, air borne contaminants, and exotic pathogens. Because a cold climate is a primary determinant of species occurrence and distribution, alpine and subalpine vegetation is very sensitive to climate warming. Dramatic changes in tree distribution and herbaceous species composition are predicted and recently have been documented in some mountain ranges.

Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is a keystone species of high-elevation ecosystems in western North America. Today, the long-term survival of the species is uncertain due to the introduction of a Eurasian fungus (blister rust, Cronartium ribicola) to North America in 1910 and to the spread of mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae).

Changes in alpine and subalpine vegetation will have a direct effect on the animal species that inhabit the alpine and subalpine areas as well as on the hydrology in mountainous zones.

Monitoring Objectives

  • Determine the status and trends in vegetation composition and structure, soil temperature, and snow cover period in subalpine and alpine communities

  • Determine the change in whitebark pine communities in response to infection by white pine blister rust (rates of infection, recruitment, growth, and understory composition)

Basic Approach

  • Permanent plots are established in the three mountainous parks in the North Coast and Cascades Network. We considered elevational gradient, aspect, and information about existing vegetation types in selecting plot locations. To detect changes on physical extents of the subalpine communities, we identify plant species composition and measure species frequency and cover at each monitoring plot.

  • At Mount Rainier and North Cascades National Parks, we monitor changes in species and structural composition in whitebark pine communities and incidence, severity, mortality, and impacts of blister rust.

Management Applications

Monitoring alpine and subalpine communities will provide information about the status and trends in vegetation structure and composition and will inform management of possible changes to these important park resources that could influence visitor experiences, ecosystem services, and wildlife habitat and will inform development of adaptive management strategies.

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    Last updated: April 24, 2023