Wild Colorado: Tundra: Precarious living | SummitDaily.com

Wild Colorado: Tundra: Precarious living

Janice Kurbjun
summit daily news
Special to the Daily/Kim Fenske

Stepping nimbly across the high alpine terrain of Peak 1 recently, I remembered a lesson I learned years ago on a family vacation out West: Step carefully, as what’s underfoot is alive – and fragile.

I can trace that first lesson to Rocky Mountain National Park, a well-trod piece of land – at least, the areas accessible by vehicle. We had pulled aside at the top of Trail Ridge Road to run (we were children at the time) up the stairs to the sweeping overlook of mountain ranges generally afforded only to those who climb, step over step, to the top of the highest peaks.

It was there I fell in love with both the name and the appearance of the Never Summer Mountain Range, way over there to the northwest – a range I’d eventually drive past regularly on pilgrimages between my newly found home in Rawlins, Wyo. to ski at Winter Park Resort.

But that’s an aside. To a certain extent, anyway. In another way, love of the mountains is the reason why I retained that long-ago lesson about alpine tundra.

The chill atop Peak 1 helped me recall the lesson more so than the low-lying vegetation surrounding me. A cold wind blew in from the west when we were on the windward side of the ridge, and I looked down.

I wasn’t on the trail any longer. I looked around for the trodden path, not wanting to disturb the fragile – and varied – life above treeline.

Tundra is a biome, or ecosystem, where the tree growth is hindered by low temperatures and short growing seasons. It’s the coldest biome, where vegetation isn’t as singular as one might think.

Instead, it’s comprised of dwarf shrubs, sedges and grasses, mosses and lichens. Scattered trees occasionally grow here, the earth above Colorado’s treeline (which varies from 12,140 feet in southern Colorado to about 10,500 feet in northern Colorado). Animals are well-adapted to the harsh environment and include mammals like pikas, marmots, mountain goats, sheep and elk; birds like grouse; and insects like beetles, grasshoppers and butterflies.

According to the University of California Museum of Paleontology of Berkeley University’s online exhibit, the word “tundra” comes from a Nordic word meaning treeless plain. When most people think tundra, they think frost-molded landscapes, extremely low temperatures, little precipitation, poor nutrients and short growing seasons.

The latter two are true for Summit County’s alpine tundra, which is different than Arctic and Antarctic tundra.

In high altitudes, alpine tundra forms in place of other plant life due to low air pressure and lower carbon dioxide levels. It typically doesn’t have permafrost (a layer of permanently frozen subsoil), according to the Berkeley resources, and alpine soils are generally better drained than arctic soils. It’s also cold up there – Colorado’s tundra generally regularly hits around freezing or below at some point in the day.

Dead organic material functions as a nutrient pool in the tundra biome. The two major nutrients are nitrogen and phosphorus. Nitrogen is created by biological fixation, and phosphorus is created by precipitation, according to Berkeley’s resources.

Located in the Northern hemisphere around the North Pole and extending southward, the arctic tundra is known for its cold, desert-like conditions. Temperatures average -34° C (-30° F) in winter, but the average summer temperature is 3-12° C (37-54° F), which sustains life.

Rainfall varies, and is often limited, and soil forms slowly. Permafrost exists here, consisting mostly of gravel and finer material. Plants get moisture from water that saturates the upper surface, forming bogs and ponds, but no deep root systems exist in arctic tundra. Nonetheless, and despite the cold climate and high winds, vegetative live is diverse – about-1,700 kinds of plants live in the arctic and subarctic, including 400 varieties of flowers, according to the Berkeley information. They carry out photosynthesis at low temperatures and with low light intensities.

At the same time flora can withstand the harsh environment, so too can fauna that’s adapted to the arctic, like lemmings, voles, caribou, arctic hares, squirrels, foxes, wolves, polar bears, various birds, insects and fish. They, like the plants that have learned to grow quickly, have adapted to breed and raise young rapidly in the summer.

Both alpine and arctic tundra are extremely fragile environments. Extreme cold makes it difficult to survive in winter, and with a short growing season, it’s tough to cope with disturbances. Footprints and tire tracks can be visible for years after they were made, and can disturb the soil such that it causes erosion. Mines and oil rigs – and their associated towns, roads and people traffic – impact the ground and the animals that live on it.

The plants and animals that have made their home on the tundra biome have adapted incredibly to the long, cold winters and the short, but abundant, summers.

They, unlike humans, can live in the high mountains or far north year-round, on the precarious edge of life. The smallest stresses can bring about their destruction.

So, think about that lesson I learned long ago, and tread lightly.

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