From the Past, a Look Ahead

Partnership looks at climate change on Monadnock

By Bonnie Hudspeth

Published in the Keene Sentinel: Monday, February 25, 2008

On a misty afternoon in late October, Charlie Royce stands outside his home in Jaffrey, gazing past the turkeys under his apple trees and up to the southwestern slopes of the stately, distinctive Mount Monadnock.

He has been climbing the mountain and working to preserve it for nearly 70 years, as state park manager, state representative, and as the head of the Monadnock Advisory Commission. Throughout his life, Royce has seen a lot of change in the forests on Monadnock. He recalls the die-off of a number of red spruce in the 1960s after several years of drought and high levels of pollution. During that time, many observers throughout New England and New York noted the deterioration of red spruce populations at high elevations.

Now, Royce thinks climate change will affect the mountain’s environment in the future.
“Our climate has always been changing, but now it is important for people to become aware of the changes,” he said.

An initiative of Antioch University New England, The Monadnock Ecological Research and Education (MERE) Project could help in that regard by measuring and raising awareness about how climate change might influence local ecology.

The brainchild of professor Peter Palmiotto and his graduate students from Antioch, MERE will link students with the community in a scientific and educational initiative. The goal of the project is to measure the effects of climate change on the mountain’s forest composition and educate community members and mountain visitors along the way.

The first seed for blending scientific research with public outreach was planted nearly half a century ago, thanks in part to Royce. As park manager in the 1960s and 70s, he helped researcher Dr. Henry Baldwin study how various plant species were regenerating on the mountain. Royce began involving the public, informing visitors about the study, and helping Baldwin find places to set seed traps where they would not be disturbed by wandering hikers.

Now, the MERE Project is picking up where Baldwin and Royce left off, taking new steps in research and education.

On a sunny morning in mid-July, David Mallard strides through the dense forest that flanks Monadnock’s side, brushing aside an entanglement of red spruce boughs with a compass in hand. When he sees a piece of bright orange flag dangling from the waist of a hemlock tree, he stops and shrugs off his backpack, moving to the PVC pipe in the ground marking the center of a research plot.

Mallard, a graduate student in the conservation biology program at Antioch, recently completed the collection of baseline data, the first piece of the MERE project. He gathered data from 88 plots on Mount Monadnock to describe the distribution of forest communities, reoccurring groups of interacting tree species found in particular physical locations.

Mallard says the mountain’s abrupt rise in elevation and position near bordering types of forests allows it to support a unique diversity of plants that normally live far apart. That, in addition to its location in the southern part of the region, means the long-term data on the mountain might be used to project future climate-induced changes in forest communities across northern New England.

With the guidance of his adviser, Palmiotto, Mallard collected data about the current forest communities on the mountain and their climatic preferences. Every five years, other students will revisit Mallard’s study plots and compare his information to climate trends over time.

This will enable members of the MERE project to predict, model and interpret the changes they might expect in the entire Northern Forest – the largest intact forest ecosystem east of the Mississippi. The forest spans 30 million acres across northern Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. Mallard is only beginning to analyze his data, but he has already learned from his field work. The biggest surprise so far is a lack of balsam fir on the mountain: He had expected to find a mixture of red spruce and balsam fir growing on the upper slopes. But, other than a slight band of balsam fir saplings, he found red spruce dominating the evergreen zone.

Balsam fir and red spruce are both highly vulnerable to warming trends, but the spruce is more so. Mallard hypothesizes that red spruce might “slip away off the mountain” in reaction to a warmer climate. What happens to the red spruce will be telling.

“I think red spruce will be a big indicator of what might be happening with continued climate change farther north,” Mallard said.

“If we see all the sugar maple, paper birch, and red spruce move out, that signifies warming.”
And along with what is leaving the mountain, Mallard also wants to consider what is moving in. In the future, more southern species currently at the northern limits of their range – such as chestnut oak – might creep in, indicating how plant and animal communities are going to change.

Tracking these changes and conserving Mount Monadnock is a priority for natives like Royce, student researchers such as Mallard, and other regional conservation groups, students, and teachers. With baseline data plots now established, the next phase of the MERE project looks to the younger generation to maintain this longtime research and continue filling in the pieces of an uncertain future.

Bonnie Hudspeth is a graduate student at Antioch University New England.