Rising Temperatures Could Drastically Alter Yellowstone Meadow Ecosystems


Photos via Iowa State University.
Guest bloggers Andrea Donsky and Randy Boyer are co-founders of NaturallySavvy.com.

There is plenty of debate surrounding the potential effects of climate change, but a new study published in the journal Ecology offers a glimpse into the future of meadow ecosystems in the face of global warming.

Diane Debinski, a researcher at Iowa State University, has been studying meadows in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for 18 years, and her data presents a potentially grim picture of what could happen to meadows if temperatures continue to climb.This study focused on changes in plants between 1997 and 2007, a decade which included an extended drought. Debinski's team studied six different types of mountain meadows ranging from dry to wet and discovered there were more of the shrubs that grow in dry meadows and fewer flowering plants which tend to grow in wet meadows -- a change that could alter meadow ecosystems dramatically.

The meadows in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, high in the Rocky Mountains, get most of their water from winter snow melt. As temperatures grow warmer, less snow is expected to accumulate, causing drier conditions in meadows -- similar to conditions experienced in an extended drought.

Changes in Plant and Animal Populations
The shift toward drier meadow ecosystems could spell trouble for many of the animals and other wildlife who live in wetter meadow ecosystems, Debinski explains:

In these meadows, as water became more scarce, that means less moisture for the plants. The flowering plants don't grow as well and therefore don't provide as much food to the animals. These types of changes in the plants could affect populations of elk, bison, as well as many other smaller animals, including insects.

Researchers also discovered fewer flowering plants meant fewer pollinators, such as butterflies.

Medium-Moisture Meadows at Greatest Risk
There are six types of meadows, ranging from wet to dry. As temperatures climb and meadows grow drier, the meadows most likely to show significant change won't be the wettest meadows, but rather the medium-moisture meadows in the middle of the scale, says Debinski:

If wet meadows get a little drier, they're still wet. If dry meadows get a little drier, they are still dry. But the meadows with a medium amount of wetness are the ones that may be changing most.

The remote nature of the location of the meadows studied lends validity to the findings because human impact is not a significant variable that could explain such changes, as is the case in many other studies.

Only time will tell how global warming will impact the planet's ecosystems, but this glimpse into the possibilities that await in a warmer world stand as yet another warning.

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Tags: Animals | Ecology | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Effects | United States | Universities