Bearing Witness: Voices of Climate Change Part IV: The San Francisco Peaks, A Sky Island Of Plants

Jun 11, 2019

This week, we're running a series of interviews called Bearing Witness: Voices of Climate Change. They're stories told by longtime Arizonans about changes they've seen in the familiar landscapes of their lives. While personal experience, in and of itself, is not scientific conclusion, many researchers believe long-term observation is a critical component to understanding how climate affects humanity and the planet. Ecologist and author Gwen Waring has been entranced by the San Francisco Peaks for decades, studying the intricate and rare plant life of the high-altitude tundra. In her recent book, The Natural History of the San Francisco Peaks: A Sky Island of the American Southwest, Waring describes strong scientific evidence that predicts climate change will create a drier environment on the Peaks in the coming decades, altering plant and animal life. Her latest work serves as both academic research and a love letter to one of northern Arizona's most iconic landscapes. 

Ecologist and author, Gwen Waring, with the San Francisco Peaks in the distance
Credit KNAU/Ryan Heinsius

Passing the Peaks in early day when they’re somewhat translucent and just really beginning to gather color for the day; and then watching them at night when they kind of recede back into that translucent state, it’s just so profoundly beautiful. Just pure beauty was the initial draw for me.

It’s an amazing sky island and a miracle in so many ways. There are endemic species that occur nowhere else. There are over 30 species of plants that are not necessarily endemic, or limited to the Peaks, but that occur only on the Peaks within Arizona, which is incredible. How did they get here? Including bristlecone pine, which occurs up at the top of the Peaks, and individual trees are dated to as much as 1,500 years old.

There are many, many mountain species on the Peaks that are isolated from related populations by hundreds of miles, and even some species from as far away as the Arctic, so it’s very profound and a very fragile system by virtue of that.

There will undoubtedly be warmer temperatures throughout and less water. Even high-elevation stuff now is affected by drought. There’s only so high species of trees, for instance, can migrate on the mountain. We may well lose aspens on the Peaks, and there’s evidence that some of the conifers are occurring at higher elevations on the mountain than they did 150 years ago, so things are climbing.

Junipers certainly are losing ground around the peaks at their lower elevations, but they’re climbing. They’re more and more present in the forest around here under ponderosa pine, so I think they’re just kind of waiting their turn.

There have been some major die-offs of blue grama grass around the Peaks and that’s regarded as one of the most drought-tolerant grasses in North America.

Fire is a big part of climate change in terms of changing populations too, and it’ll clear the way for pinyon-juniper. It can more easily colonize this area, and fires in the Peaks will be extraordinary because they’re very rare. It’ll be a real game changer.

It’s kind of wide open as to how it’s ultimately going to go but given the predictions they’re making about Dustbowl-like conditions thorough the next century, it’s going to be a much smaller habitat. And there’s already evidence of increased temperature and less precipitation on the mountain and in Flagstaff.

It will be a definite winnowing of diversity and species. And yet, great evolutionary potential as well. These species are adapting—species that you wouldn’t figure would be capable of changing very quickly to climate change are adapting more tightly to local conditions. We can only hope some species will hang in there until the next ice age.

It’s amazing, changing and very diverse, and as diverse as most other mountain systems ultimately. It’s a fragile mountain and we all need to love it and take care of it better.