Lichens and Tundra Plants Await a Summer Storm

December 03, 2019


Photographer: Peter Claussen 
Summary Author: Peter Claussen 

Access to the land above the trees is the most distinct aspect of Rocky Mountain National Park. Trail Ridge Road, the highest road in any U.S. national park, transports you to this realm of open sky where you'll find tiny but brilliant flowers and a harsh climate. Approximately one-third of this national park is above the elevation limit where trees may grow in northern Colorado. The Alpine Tundra Ecosystem starts between 11,000-11,500 feet (3,353 – 3,502 m), depending upon exposure. This is truly a land of extremes. Strong, frequent winds and cold temperatures help limit what plants can grow here. Many plants are dwarfed, but their few blossoms may be full-sized. Note that most alpine plants are perennials.

Cushion plants look like ground-hugging clumps of moss. Having long taproots that extend deep into the rocky soil, they escape the strong winds blowing just a few inches above them. Many flowering plants of the tundra have dense hairs on stems and leaves to provide wind protection or red-colored pigments capable of converting the sun's light rays into heat. Some plants take two or more years to form flower buds, which survive the winter below the surface and then open and produce fruit with seeds in the few weeks of summer. Grasses and sedges are common where tundra soil is well-developed.

Non-flowering lichens cling to rocks and soil. Their enclosed algal cells can photosynthesize at any temperature above 32 degrees F (0 degrees C), and the outer fungal layers can absorb more than their own weight in water. Adaptations for survival amidst drying winds and cold temperatures may make tundra vegetation seem very hardy, but in some respects. They’re quite fragile. Photo taken on September 19, 2019.

Photo Details: Camera: NIKON D810; Software: Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic 8.4.1 (Windows); Exposure Time: 0.011s (1/90); Aperture: ƒ/16.0; ISO equivalent: 64; Focal Length (35mm): 32.