Climate change may usher in different scene on Mount Rainier

Nothing lures visitors to Paradise like the transitory displays of wildflowers that populate Mount Rainier's high mountain meadows.

But summer sojourns could fade into memory and panoramic vistas vanish as alpine asters, rosy pussytoes and purple lupines are crowded out by trees.

Add disappearing high mountain meadows to the catalog of effects wrought by global warming. "There aren't very many places where you can visually identify the changes affected by climate. This is one," said David L. Peterson, a Forest Service research biologist.

The problem is snowfall, or more precisely, lack of it. A long-term decline in mountain snowpack also blamed for many shrinking glaciers permits trees to grow in places where they couldn't otherwise establish a foothold.

"As soon as you get less snow, there are more opportunities for trees to come in," said botanist Regina Rochefort, a National Park Service science adviser.

Plant ecologist Mignonne Bivin, Rochefort's Park Service colleague, put it this way: "Meadows stay open because of snowpack. That's what restricts trees' temperature and water availability. As we get less snow and more rain, we get more trees."

Rochefort began exploring the pattern of tree encroachment at Mount Rainier in the early 1990s. Her research focused on subalpine meadows at elevations between 5,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level.