Thursday, January 29, 2015
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

1st release for birds with mysterious goo a success

By Amy Maginnis-Honey | From Page: A1, 1 Comment | Gallery

 
4-H Annual Presentation Day returns in February

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A3

 
Vacaville SWAT team serves search warrant

By Kevin W. Green | From Page: A3

Real estate occupancy continues to climb

By Kevin W. Green | From Page: A3, 1 Comment

 
 
Council backs beer, wine sales for Vacaville store

By Ryan McCarthy | From Page: A3

Vacaville police seek help to find sex offender

By Kevin W. Green | From Page: A3, 3 Comments | Gallery

 
Sweep by sheriff’s team nets 4 arrests

By Kevin W. Green | From Page: A3, 3 Comments

 
 
Travis starts work on Functional Fitness Center

By Ian Thompson | From Page: A3

 
Boy Scouts to screen award-winning film

By Ian Thompson | From Page: A3

 
Church makes ready for health, wellness fair

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A3

Fairfield police log: Jan. 27, 2015

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A10

 
Suisun City police log: Jan. 27, 2015

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A10, 1 Comment

.

US / World

Air Force probing alleged ‘treason’ remark by general

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

 
Expect tiny tuxes but no real puppy love at doggy weddings

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2 | Gallery

 
Large salmon release planned

By The Associated Press | From Page: A4

Violations mount for toxic recycler

By The Associated Press | From Page: A4

 
Quake rattles N. California coast

By The Associated Press | From Page: A4

Second arrest in student stabbing

By The Associated Press | From Page: A4, 1 Comment

 
Marshals track down missing treasure hunter

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5

‘Drunk’ excuse falls flat in Vandy rape trial

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5

 
Attorney General nominee defends Obama immigration changes

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

Police seek law to alter Google app

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

 
Investigation stems from police-involved shooting outbreak

By The Associated Press | From Page: A6

Hezbollah missiles kill soldiers

By New York Times | From Page: A6

 
ISIS extends hostage deadline

By The Associated Press | From Page: A6

Euro coast guards scramble to locate Syrian ghost ship

By The Associated Press | From Page: A6

 
Chinese regulators go after online sale of fake goods

By The Associated Press | From Page: A6

Tape: Scientist offers to build nuke bomb targeting New York

By The Associated Press | From Page: A10 | Gallery

 
.

Opinion

India now has 322 billion reasons to fix economy

By William Pesek | From Page: A7

 
Don’t brush off bullying

By Kelvin Wade | From Page: A7, 1 Comment

 
Editorial Cartoon: Jan. 29, 2015

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A7

Just be honest and come forward

By Letter to the Editor | From Page: A7, 1 Comment

 
A truly misinformed writer

By Letter to the Editor | From Page: A7, 23 Comments

.

Living

Today in History: Jan. 29, 2015

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

 
Community Calendar: Jan. 29, 2015

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A2

Deadbeat boyfriend ruined my relationship with my granddaughter

By Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar | From Page: A9

 
Horoscope Jan. 29, 2015

By Holiday Mathis | From Page: A9

.

Entertainment

TVGrid

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Theater legend Joel Grey reveals that he is gay

By The Associated Press | From Page: B5, 2 Comments

Super Bowl advertisers aim not to offend

By The Associated Press | From Page: B5

 
.

Sports

Kings center DeMarcus Cousins hoping to make All-Star team

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1

 
Rodriguez wrestlers pull out 34-24 win over Wood

By Brian Arnold | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Tony Stewart acquires national sprint car series tour

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

Solano men cruise past LMC for biggest win of season

By Daily Republic staff | From Page: B2

 
NFL players who started young show more thinking problems

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

GM John Schneider has been architect of Seahawks’ success

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

 
Patriots not dwelling on last Super Bowl loss in Arizona

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

Woods returns to Phoenix with plenty of memories

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

 
Korda, Lewis, Munoz tied for lead at LPGA season opener

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

Head of NCAA enforcement: Academic misconduct on rise

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

 
Chicago Cubs’ Ernie Banks statue moved downtown for tribute

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

Kobe Bryant has surgery, expected to be out for 9 months

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

 
This date in sports history for Jan. 29, 2015

By The Associated Press | From Page: B4

 
.

Business

.

Obituaries

Joseph Phillip Raiff

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4, 2 Comments

 
Dzhon Athanc

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

.

Comics

Wizard of Id

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Peanuts

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

For Better or Worse

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Blondie

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

Zits

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Rose is Rose

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

Baby Blues

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Baldo

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

Get Fuzzy

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Sally Forth

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

B.C.

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Beetle Bailey

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

Frank and Ernest

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Garfield

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

Dilbert

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
Pickles

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

Cryptoquote

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A9

 
Sudoku

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A9

Crossword

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A9

 
Bridge

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A9

Word Sleuth

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A9