Lessons from Travels: Alpine Tundra

by Carl Strang

Before I experienced high-altitude tundra for the first time, I was inclined to dismiss it. After all, I had lived in what I regarded as the real thing, when I conducted my thesis research in western Alaska. To my way of thinking, any tundra south of the great treeline of the North could not be anything but a pretender. When the time came in 1984 to visit alpine tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park, however, I was forced to change my tune.

In the mountains the treeline makes clear where the tundra begins.

Part of my conversion was visual. High in the Rockies it just plain looks like tundra.

The treeless terrain, still holding snow patches at the height of summer, reminded me of scenes from western Alaska, though of course with much greater topographic relief.

Up close the plants were of different species, but their colors, attitude and arrangement were very familiar.

Some of the plants clearly belonged to the same genera as species I’d encountered in Alaskan upland tundra areas.

What won me over in the end was that it simply felt like tundra. The clarity of the air, the smell and edge to the atmosphere, the light and sky and configuration of the land, all fit together in the same way. The feeling I had in Alaska when stepping out into that ever-present edged wind was the same, and I had to acknowledge that I had been wrong to dismiss alpine tundra.

That’s not to say that it was the same in every way. There were no pikas on my Alaskan study area.

Though they look like big mice, pikas are more closely related to rabbits.

They were cute and industrious, gathering plants to cure for the long wintry season.

Here one transports a big mouthful.

Pikas never have been in northeast Illinois or northwest Indiana, but tundra was here in the not-so-distant past. People hunted big game in our local tundra 15,000 years ago as the last glacier’s edge melted its way back north.

What about mountains? For that possibility we have to look much farther back in time, 1-1.5 billion years, during the Proterozoic Eon when North America was being hammered together through the collision of smaller continental plates. Just as we see in the Himalayas of today where India is slamming into Asia, such collisions can pile up significant mountain ranges. However, in that time when our bit of North America may indeed have been mountainous, land plants had not yet evolved, so there would have been no alpine tundra here then. Our area has seen tundra, and it probably has seen mountains, but never at the same time.

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