Alpine plants are the sprinters of the plant world. In the Adirondacks, they have about sixty frost-free days a year in which to bloom and store energy before winter returns. Once the snow and ice start to melt in May, alpine plants begin photosynthesizing immediately. Another adaptation is that alpine plants set their buds two to four years in advance, which means they depend more on past warm summers than on icy springs for their bloom capability.
With the snowpack melting, two different communities are heavily affected by snow depth: the Diapensia and the Snowbed. The Diapensia community (consisting of diapensia, Lapland rosebay, and alpine azalea) survives on the harsh, windward side of the mountain where the snow is swept clean and vegetation is left mostly exposed. A natural cycle of succession occurs in mats of diapensia where needle ice damage, death, and seedling growth occurs.
The Snowbed community is on the most protected leeward side of the mountains with the deepest snow cover. A mixture of low-elevation and alpine plants survive and thrive in this sheltered microhabitat. Beneath the snow, the temperature is considerably higher than the air temperature above and fluctuates very little since the ground is not exposed to strong sunlight in the day and freezing at night. These plants are the last to thaw out of the insulating snow.
Conditions in the High Peaks are extremely unstable in the spring. Mud season—wet conditions caused by snow melt—makes the soil very susceptible to erosion. And needle ice can cause seedling death, vegetation damage, and soil erosion. (Needle ice is frost heave that occurs when fine-grained soils have an abundant supply of water. When the temperature goes below freezing, ice grows in columns perpendicular to the ground and upheaves soil and even rocks.)
Saturated soils, needle ice, and hikers hiking off trail can heavily damage alpine vegetation this time of year. Alpine plants have evolved defenses against needle ice and soil erosion, yet remain defenseless against hiker trampling.
Here’s how you can help alpine plants this spring:
- The Department of Environmental Conservation and ADK ask hikers to stay below 2500 feet in spring to protect fragile alpine vegetation and muddy trails from erosion. Alternative hikes can be found at the DEC and ADK websites.
- When above treeline, please stay on the bedrock and off of fragile alpine vegetation in all seasons.
- Since deep snow and ice can persist until the end of May, please make sure you have all the necessary gear (snowshoes, microspikes, and crampons) to safely traverse icy trails.
- Make a gift to support the Adirondack High Peak Summit Stewardship Program today.
For the full article with images, pick up your May-June edition of the Adirondac available May 1. Members can view the magazine in their Members Area on the website. Non-members can purchase the magazine in our online shop.