Warmer in the Whites
A look into the future of the Northeast's alpine zones in a hotter climate
By Michael Lanza
AMC Outdoors, September 2012
The sun feels like a bright, hot interrogation lamp as we set out from the Highland Center in Crawford Notch for Mount Willard. With me are my 75-year-old mother, Joanne Lanza, my 11-year-old son, Nate, my 9-year-old daughter, Alex, and my nephew Brodie Vowles—who recently turned 9 and is bounding up the trail on his first-ever hike.
Just a few days ago, after seeing pictures of his cousins on backpacking trips, Brodie had told me, "Uncle Mike, I really want to go on your next hike." So my young nephew joins a long tradition of budding hikers inspired by the White Mountains.
Willard is a good choice for a baptismal hike. It carries a well-deserved reputation for delivering a big scenic payoff with relatively little effort invested—a bit over an hour's walk up 900 feet in 1.6 miles. A slight breeze touches our sweaty necks, but the midday temperature pushes 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the air feels so damp you could just about grab a piece of it in your hands and wring water from it. Even though I'm walking with a light daypack at a casual pace, perspiration streams down my face.
Taken alone, today's heat and humidity do not seem extraordinary for the middle of July. But since researching and writing a book about how climate change is reshaping many of our national parks—already, and in ways that will alter them dramatically by the time my children are my age—I see this summer's heat waves and drought, the extreme weather of recent years worldwide, and the increasing incidence of hot days like today in the context of a new normal that many experts believe we have already entered. But much as unpredictable, severe weather has long defined the White Mountains for hikers, the climate story here is a complex narrative.
We reach the open ledges at the top of Willard and collect our payoff: a sweeping view from a precipice more than a thousand feet above the Saco River, looking out over the Webster Cliffs and the green mountainsides of the Willey Range framing Crawford Notch. Standing awestruck on his first summit, Brodie says, "The railroad tracks look like a toy set down there."
The view looks the same as every time I've stood here—including on the day before my wedding at the Mount Washington Hotel, 14 years ago. It probably looked basically the same to the Crawford family in the 19th century. But changes underway could make the White Mountains a different place.
Now we're fast approaching a redux of that warm period several thousand years ago. According to the oldest recorded data set of temperatures in New England, dating to 1935 on Mount Washington and in Pinkham Notch, we know that the average temperature in Pinkham is 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in 1935; atop Mount Washington, the increase is 1.1 degrees. Winter and spring temperatures are rising fastest. Since 1949, the first snowfall on Mount Washington has arrived, on average, almost six days later per decade, and the last snowfall in spring is more than two days earlier each decade. In Pinkham Notch, the snow melts out more than two weeks earlier, on average, than it did in 1930.
Signs of that warming are everywhere. At the U.S. Forest Service Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, south of Franconia Notch, sugar maple, beech, and yellow birch trees are leafing out 12 days earlier than in 1935. Meanwhile, the tiny wildflower Diapensia in White Mountain alpine zones is flowering one to two days earlier than 75 years ago—reflecting other findings that warming is accelerating faster at lower elevations than it is at higher ones.
But one or two days is "still statistically significant," AMC Staff Scientist Georgia Murray told me. And much of the native vegetation in the Northeast's alpine zones are so-called "relic tundra" like Diapensia; their nearest relatives grow hundreds of miles to the north, in Newfoundland. If those species disappeared from the Northeast mountains, they might never return. And as AMC Research Director Ken Kimball pointed out, some computer models project the region becoming hotter than it has been at any time since the Ice Age.
"Alpine plants that are specialized to this niche could potentially have no place to go" if conditions here become intolerable for them, Murray said. Other species that are dependent on them could disappear as well. As one example: Bigelow sedge, which makes up the grass-like fields on Mount Washington, is a key species because it hosts the larvae of the endemic White Mountain Arctic butterfly. The larvae are in turn a food source for an alpine-breeding bird, the American pipit.
At the same time, the alpine zones in the White Mountains exist at lower elevations than alpine zones in other mid-latitude mountains anywhere in the world—and it all has to do with the omnipresent clouds on these summits. That may insulate these alpine zones from some effects of climate change. (See the related story, "Climate Forecast: Considering the Future of the Alpine Zone," from AMC Outdoors.
During our conversation, Murray told me that she hiked Mount Washington and over to Lakes of the Clouds this past May 30, and found no snow remaining and the Diapensia just past flowering at Lakes. "It was out very early from past years," she noted. But then she pulled her scientist cap on more tightly and noted, "One year's results is not a trend, but the multi-year trend looks problematic."
Back on the Trail
From our first steps on the Webster-Jackson Trail, the path rises at a brutally steep angle. We clamber over ground choked with rocks tilted at ankle-twisting angles. And then it gets hard.
Like many trails in the Whites, this one seems to have been constructed by people with superhuman lung capacity and quadriceps like watermelons; mortals might have considered putting in some switchbacks. When we're not huffing and chuffing and high-stepping as if in an advanced aerobics class, we're scrambling nearly vertical boulders using hands and feet.
After two hours of sweaty climbing, everyone sprawls onto the open ledges at Webster's summit. I point out to the kids the summit of Mount Willard, a thousand feet lower than where we stand. They can't believe the towering mountain they conquered yesterday looks so Lilliputian from this prospect.
While Mark, Skye, and Marco take off ahead on their way to knocking off a longer loop of nearly 10 miles, over Mount Pierce and down the Crawford Path, the rest of us carry on at a more leisurely pace up Mount Jackson. From its bare, rocky summit, the Southern Presidentials form a lumpy ramp rising toward the 6,288-foot crown of Mount Washington.
Gazing at it, I think about the many times I've walked that open ridge through the biggest contiguous alpine zone east of the Mississippi River, on rocks older than we can really conceive. It's hard to imagine these mountains looking any different than they have since before Darby Field made the first known ascent of Mount Washington in 1642.
I'm reminded that the two major differences between past climate shifts and today's, of course, are that changes prior to modern history were natural, not largely driven by human activities (as much of today's research now tells us), and they occurred over much longer time periods, on the order of hundreds or thousands of years. Today's climatological metamorphosis began when my mother's grandparents were children, has accelerated during my lifetime, and will bring profound change to our world—including impacts on plants, animals, and our parks, forests, wilderness, and other natural lands—by the time my children and nephew are my age. The natural causes of climate change have not disappeared, but human activities have introduced a potent new amplifier.
My children and nephew should be able to enjoy this same view for many years to come. But as Kimball pointed out to me, we are venturing into unknown climatological terrain. "For the past couple thousand years, when most civilizations burgeoned, climate variability was in a relatively benign period," he said. Now "humans may be accelerating the end of that benign period.
"That's the dangerous experiment we're playing with right now."
Writer and photographer Michael Lanza is Northwest editor of Backpacker magazine, creator of TheBigOutside.com, and author of Before They're Gone—A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks.