Thursday, December 18, 2014
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
99 CENTS

Mount Rainier’s climate change butterfly effect

Mount Rainier Butterflies

Western Washington University biologist John McLaughlin catches a butterfly along a trail at Mount Rainier National Park, Wash., July 30, 2014. McLaughlin is counting and recording butterflies in Rainier alpine meadows to measure the impact of climate change. (AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Bettina Hansen)

By
From page D7 | August 10, 2014 |

MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. — With a pirouette and swoosh of his net, John McLaughlin is after his quarry.

Up here in the rarefied realm of Mount Rainier’s alpine meadows, the mountain, glaciered and magnificent, seems close enough to touch. Velvet green meadows pool with teal lakes. But McLaughlin has eyes only for the lovely denizens of the high country: butterflies, gliding from flower to flower.

Last week, he embarked on an epic trek around Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail, in a solo sampling expedition, logging butterfly species and abundance as he hikes.

An associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, McLaughlin is beginning what he hopes will be a long-term monitoring project of butterfly populations in the 40 different alpine meadows of Mount Rainier National Park, to help track how they are affected by climate change.

For butterflies are more than signatures of summer and color on the wing. They also are known to be among the most sensitive species to climate change, because of their tight relationship to certain plants for food.

As winters warm, trees are expected to invade mountain meadows, shading the alpine meadow plants butterflies depend on for food.

Earlier melt-out of snow could also mean that plants will emerge and be past their tender, palatable peak of nutrition by the time butterfly larvae hatch, putting the plants and the butterflies that depend on them out of synchrony.

“As plants start earlier, butterflies won’t be able to keep up with them,” McLaughlin said.

Butterflies are also creatures of the sun. They must warm their bodies by basking in order to fly and digest their food.

So as trees shade Rainier’s meadows, they will change everything for the sun-loving butterfly.

But to understand the predicted changes ahead – as well as the surprises sure to come – scientists need to build a baseline to document present conditions and populations, McLaughlin said. So he’s footing it around the mountain, a biologist on a mission. You can’t miss him on the trail: He’s the guy with the butterfly net.

McLaughlin pads along like a stalking cat, ever on the lookout for a flash of motion. “You have to go on hyper alert,” McLaughlin said, as he swung his gaze from side to side. “With butterflies, there is no sound. It’s all visual.”

McLaughlin has timed his survey for the peak butterfly season, with midsummer warmth coaxing open the alpine-meadow wildflowers: purple asters, blue lupine, magenta paintbrush. White valerian, pink phlox, orange lilies, and red columbine. White Queen Anne’s lace and the bizarre, Dr. Seuss-like frizz of bear grass in bloom.

Sometimes, McLaughlin can tell a butterfly species just by eyeballing it from the trail. Others require more rigorous methods.

McLaughlin slices the net through the air after a checkerspot butterfly, to determine if it has the precise alignment of black stripes and orange borders that delineate it as the Edith’s variety. Sure enough.

The butterfly pauses on his finger as he sets it free, its antennae glinting in the sun.

Some are too quick for him to count, others too far away. But plenty get logged with his pencil on the data sheets he’s packing around the mountain, along with 60 pounds of gear.

A veteran of backcountry research, McLaughlin has snowshoed the North Cascades looking for wolverines and other carnivores, and counted bird scat in the Elwha. “This is the payoff,” he said, as butterflies cruised the sunbeams for flowers on which to sip nectar.

For all the beauty around him, McLaughlin knows he may be looking at a scene future generations will never see. As the climate warms, the alpine and subalpine meadows at Olympic, North Cascades and Mount Rainier national parks are expected to greatly reduce in size, as trees establish where today’s conditions are too harsh for them.

Average temperatures in the Pacific Northwest have increased 1.5 degrees since 1920 and are projected to rise an additional 2 to 4 degrees or more by the end of the century, according to a 2001 University of Washington report on the effects of climate change in Olympic National Park.

The Pacific Northwest is expected to see wetter winters and drier summers, with a slight increase in annual precipitation. The changes are due primarily to the burning of fossil fuels, stoking levels of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas, in the atmosphere.

The global reality of climate change hits home even in the remote redoubt of Mount Rainier.

Trees, mostly subalpine firs, have already begun invading subalpine meadows at the park over the course of the 20th century, in association with warmer temperatures, and the trend is expected to increase.

For butterflies, climate change is just one more threat to survival. Outside of the park, loss of habitat has been long under way, as native grasslands and prairies are lost to development and agriculture. In the South Puget Sound area, only 3 percent of the native prairie habitat in which butterflies thrive remains. Weeds have invaded much of what’s left.

But an aggressive conservation and restoration program by the Center for Natural Lands Management has restored some 5,000 acres of prairie in the Olympia area. The organization has worked with a range of other partners and even prison labor to remove weeds; raise populations of endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, and release them to the prairies.

“We are really bringing this habitat back,” said Patrick Dunn, director of the South Sound program for the center.

The Glacial Heritage Preserve near Olympia, once a solid wasteland of Scot’s broom, an invasive weed, has been restored to native camas and grasses, and is aswirl again with butterflies.

To McLaughlin, butterflies are an inspiration, surviving against the odds if given the chance. “They give it their all; it is so amazing.”

He predicts that as meadows change on Mount Rainier, some butterflies will do fine, moving on to other habitat, if they are strong fliers, and able to switch their food sources. But others will probably be unable to adapt. “We will be documenting extinctions,” McLaughlin said.

To him, his survey work is more than just a counting exercise. “We can take what we are learning and apply it to larger society and say, these are the costs of what we have been doing,” McLaughlin said.

“I am scientifically compelled to figure out what is going on. But there is also a moral component, of bearing witness.”

McLaughlin figures his mountain-meadow survey will take about a week and a half. He’ll hike more than 90 miles, with an elevation gain of more than 23,000 feet as he rounds the entire trail, the equivalent of climbing Mount Rainier nearly twice.

No problem for McLaughlin, who moves up steep trails with the steady power of a locomotive. He seems powered by not only strength, but his joy in being in his outdoor laboratory.

“Being in nature reminds me of what is important in life, and why it is so much fun to get up every day,” McLaughlin said. “We live in a world that is changing before our eyes. That’s worth taking notice of.”

 

The Seattle Times

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | 2 comments

The Daily Republic does not necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Read our full policy

  • PornacAugust 10, 2014 - 7:32 am

    Another tree hugging, hippy. What a waste of time.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Doug FirAugust 10, 2014 - 7:51 am

    Come on Pornac, give me a hug Man. We poor trees have been taking it in the knothole so long thanks to Climate Change when all we what is a hug. Come man, I promise I won't give you splitters.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
.

Solano News

Solano College trustees move back ‘home’

By Susan Winlow | From Page: A1 | Gallery

 
Needs of small dog give Solano man life’s mission

By Ian Thompson | From Page: A1, 5 Comments | Gallery

 
Christmas comes early for prenatal program participants

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A2 | Gallery

Jury convicts teen for role in 2012 DeBartolo’s heist

By Jess Sullivan | From Page: A3, 3 Comments | Gallery

 
Police chief: Suisun crime up 3 percent in 2014

By Ian Thompson | From Page: A3, 2 Comments | Gallery

 
Council OKs $65,730 pact to advocate for Travis base

By Ryan McCarthy | From Page: A3

 
Fairfield pays $42,500 to settle soil suit

By Ryan McCarthy | From Page: A3

 
 
Fairfield police log: Dec. 16, 2014

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A10

Fairfield police log: Dec. 15, 2014

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A10

 
Suisun City police log: Dec. 16, 2014

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A10

Suisun City police log: Dec. 15, 2014

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A10, 1 Comment

 
.

US / World

US, Cuba patch torn relations in historic accord

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1, 1 Comment

 
Fears fanned by hackers bring down Sony film

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1

 
Like Iran, secret diplomacy leads to US-Cuba thaw

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1

Pope played crucial role in US-Cuba rapprochement

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1

 
US travel industry carefully eyeing Cuba tourism

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1

US-Cuba thaw could benefit farmers, energy and travel firms

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1

 
Cubans cheer historic renewal of US relations

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1, 2 Comments

Freed American endured years of declining health

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1

 
Bay Bridge light sculpture to keep on shining

By The Associated Press | From Page: A4, 4 Comments

Study: Huge wildfire supports need for controlled burns

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5

 
A fresh setback for efforts to cure HIV infection

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5, 1 Comment

14 charged in deadly 2012 meningitis outbreak

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5

 
Study: Alcatraz inmates could have survived escape

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5

Nigerian court sentences 54 soldiers to death

By The Associated Press | From Page: A6

 
Colombian rebels announce unilateral cease-fire

By The Associated Press | From Page: A6

Russians flock to stores to pre-empt price rises

By The Associated Press | From Page: A6, 1 Comment

 
Pakistan buries victims of school massacre

By The Associated Press | From Page: A6, 1 Comment

.

Opinion

 
Crime Witness Protocol 101

By Kelvin Wade | From Page: A7, 8 Comments

 
Editorial Cartoons: Dec. 18, 2014

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A7

 
.

Living

Today in History: Dec. 18, 2014

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

 
Community Calendar: Dec. 18, 2014

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A2

Horoscopes: Dec. 18, 2014

By Holiday Mathis | From Page: A9

 
My siblings don’t want to replace abusive mother’s pacemaker

By Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar | From Page: A9

.

Entertainment

25 movies chosen for the National Film Registry

By The Associated Press | From Page: B4

 
Saving Private Ryan’ among films being preserved

By The Associated Press | From Page: B4

TVGrid

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
.

Sports

For MLB, changes in Cuba will take time to sort out

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1

 
Falcons cruise by crushers in girls basketball

By Paul Farmer | From Page: B1, 1 Comment | Gallery

49ers release McDonald amid further legal trouble

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1

 
Carr faces another tough test in rookie season

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1

Painkillers lawsuit against NFL dismissed; may be appealed

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

 
Garcia resigns as FIFA prosecutor

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

Chattanooga women stun No. 7 Stanford 54-46

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2 | Gallery

 
Track coach Drummond gets 8-year doping suspension

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

Warriors’ Bogut out with knee injury vs. Thunder

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

 
AP source: Romo close to $15M, 2-year deal with Giants

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

Baseball monitoring White House Cuba decision

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

 
APNewsBreak: Judge rejects NCAA concussions deal

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

 
This date in sports history for Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

.

Business

Health care exchange sign-ups exceeding last year

By The Associated Press | From Page: B5

 
Fed to be ‘patient’ about a rate hike; stocks soar

By The Associated Press | From Page: B5

McDonald’s in Japan limits orders of fries

By The Associated Press | From Page: B5

 
Amid scrutiny, Uber says it will focus more on safety

By The Associated Press | From Page: B5

.

Obituaries

Ernest “Ernie” Moretti

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

 
Jennie Ponce Reyes

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

Patricia “Pat” Anne Stringfield-Pierre

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

 
Marian L. “Chicki” Downs

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

.

Comics

Beetle Bailey

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Frank and Ernest

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

Zits

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Sally Forth

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

Garfield

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Peanuts

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

Dilbert

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Get Fuzzy

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

For Better or Worse

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
B.C.

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

Rose is Rose

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Blondie

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

Pickles

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Baldo

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

Baby Blues

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Wizard of Id

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

Word Sleuth

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A9

 
Crossword

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A9

Cryptoquote

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A9

 
Sudoku

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A9

Bridge

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A9