What will climate change mean for Mount Rainier’s wildflowers?

The Cascade aster flowers near Mount Rainier.
The Cascade aster flowers near Mount Rainier. University of Washington

Climate change will mean big changes for wildflowers on Mount Rainier by the end of the century, but we’re already starting to see some of those changes.

That’s the takeaway from a University of Washington paper published online last month in the journal Ecology.

UW ecologists collected data from 2010 to 2015 on subalpine wildflowers — including avalanche lily, magenta paintbrush, mountain blueberry and wild huckleberry — that bloom in the summer on the southern slopes of Mount Rainier. Each year when the snow melts, the flowers typically have a two- to four-month window to emerge, flower and produce fruit and seeds before the snow returns.

In 2015, the unseasonably warm, dry summer meant snow started to melt earlier than in previous years. All of the species studied flowered earlier than normal and about half flowered for longer than normal; some species that normally flower weeks apart flowered at the same time.

Researchers say 2015 was a preview of things to come, since climate change is expected to permanently alter the environmental cues wildflowers rely on. This could mean plants will have to compete for pollinators like bumblebees, flies and hummingbirds.

“We simply don’t yet have enough information to know who the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of reassembly will be, or even what ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ in such a scenario would look like,” UW doctoral student Elli Theobald, co-lead-author of the paper, said in a news release.

Abby Spegman: 360-704-6869, @AbbySpegman