National Park Service

North Coast and Cascades Network (NCCN)

Subalpine Vegetation Monitoring

Subalpine vegetation at North Cascades National Park
Subalpine vegetation at North Cascades National Park

Resource Briefs

Monitoring Reports

Subalpine Vegetation Monitoring Protocol

For more information contact: Regina Rochefort or Mignonne Bivin

Importance & Issues

Alpine and subalpine communities are emblematic of mountain parks of the Pacific Northwest and subject to emerging threats including global climate change, air borne contaminants, and exotic pathogens.

The alpine and subalpine vegetation communities are believed to be the first zones that will show the early effects of global climate change. These threats may cause changes in species composition and community structure (Epstein 2004) as well as forest line and tree island extent (Brink 1959, Woodward 1991, Rochefort 1994, Rochefort 1996, Kimball 2000, Dullinger 2004, Millar 2004).

Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is a keystone species of high-elevation ecosystems in western North America. Today, the long-term survival of the species is uncertain due to the introduction of a Eurasian fungus (blister rust, Cronartium ribicola) to North America in 1910.

Changes in alpine and subalpine vegetation will have a direct effect on the animal species that inhabit the alpine and subalpine areas as well as on the hydrology in mountainous zones.

Parks Monitored


Monitoring Objectives

  • Determine patterns, structure, and abundance of alpine and subalpine vegetation communities change.
  • Determine distribution of forest line/subalpine trees.
    • Location and extent of forest line.
    • Sizes and locations of tree islands.
  • Determine the whitebark pine communities change (rates of infection, recruitment, growth, and understory composition) in response to infection by white pine blister rust.
  • Determine whether air pollution sensitive species (vascular and non-vascular) are exhibiting symptoms of the effects of air pollution.

Potential Measures

  • Permanent plots will be established in the three mountainous parks in the NCCN. Establishment of plots will consider elevational gradients and aspects, to detect changes on physical extents of the subalpine communities. Attributes collected for each site include: species composition, frequency, and cover.
  • Changes in tree, forest line, and in tree island distribution will be determined by remote sensing. Aerial photos will be used at 10-year intervals to determine tree line and changes in location and extent of tree islands. This is included in the "Landscape Dynamics Protocol." The baseline extent of tree line and tree islands will be mapped on aerial photos. Plot level sampling will be used to track the fate of tree seedlings and is included in the monitoring objectives.
  • Changes in species and structural composition in whitebark pine communities as well as incidence, severity, mortality, and impacts of blister rust will be collected at MORA and NOCA. Pilot data will be analyzed for power to detect trend and will be used to determine sample size and frequency. Analysis of pilot data has been completed for whitebark pine monitoring.
  • Visual observations of damage on species will be sampled in the locations of subalpine plots. Vascular species which may be included in the sampling include: subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), huckleberry (Vaccinium sp.), bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi).

Management Applications

Areas in the National Parks in the Pacific Northwest will serve as reference sites for which changes in other, more altered, areas can be compared.

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Last Updated: December 30, 2016 Contact Webmaster