Friday, October 19, 2012

A trip to the mountains: Seminsky Pass and Forest Composition

At 8:15 on Saturday morning October 6th, we met at the front gate of Gorno-Altaisk State University to wait for the bus that would take us on an overnight trip to Seminsky Pass - (elevation close to 1894 m - about 300 meters higher than Mt. Marcy) . Seminsky is about 190 km from Gorno and is the  highest pass on the chuy highway as you drive south from Gorno into the golden mountains. Eight of my students, my two daughters, the driver and myself headed out of town with the goal of stopping 3 times on the way at different elevations.  I brought along some information to share from research I had done about some of the species we would see, the changes in abiotic conditions as you climb up in elevation, and the changes that climate change has already wrought in the siberian mountains with respect to forest composition and distribution.
Lida and Vicka keep us smiling!
Our first stop along the highway to talk about forest composition.

It won't come as any surprise to students of forestry or ecology that the lower elevations, like in our subboreal areas, are inhabited by birches and poplar, willows in the lowlands and some spruce and fir. 

Interestingly, like in the Adirondacks (my back yard for instance) there is an abundance of scots pine, but here they grow straight, unlike many of the planted stands we see that have double leaders and crooked stems.  Around the city in the low hills there are forests dominated by these that look like the plantations but this is within the broad range of their natural habitat and so they are likely natural forests (common in the zone called 'light needled mountain tiaga' - see below).
The birch that you can see in the background of the picture of us above is Betula pendula.  At this time of year with branches pedulous, the leaves yellow-gold and thinning, they look to me like the left over sparkles of those big gold-edged fireworks that disperse and then the edges hang in the sky for a while.

The vegetation structure as you travel up the mountains is really much more complicated than I shared with my students, as you can see just looking out at the landscape in the image below.
These are determined by the combination of temperature and precipitation which in-turn are influenced by aspect and elevation. The picture that I took below gives a pretty good visual of these zones if you use your imagination:-)

Eight primary vegetation belts are described by researchers for the mountains of southern Siberia,
Beginning at the highest elevation belt :
(from N. M. Tchebakova, R. A. Monserud, E. I. Parfenova. 2001.  Phytomass change in the mountain forests of southern Siberia under climate warming  - on-line paper, a collaboration of researchers from Krasnayarsk and Rocky Mountain Research Station in Colorado)

Mountain tundra (lichens, mosses,

Rhododendron, Betula rotundifolia) with temperature sums (growing degree days ) <700C and no value in the dryness index.

Subalpine mountain taiga (cold and wet)
Pinus sibirica and Abies sibirica, including wet subalpine meadows)

Subgolets sparse mountain taiga (cold and dry; both dark- and light-needled open taiga)

Dark-needled mountain taiga (dominated by
Pinus sibirica and Abies sibirica)


Light-needled mountain taiga (dominated by
Larix sibirica and Pinus sylvestris)

Dark-needled chern taiga (floristically rich and productive warm taiga mixed with
Populus tremula),

(Pinus sylvestris, Larix sibirica and Betula pendula)

Steppe and dry steppe
(Caragana, Spirea, Cotoneaster, Stipa, Fescuta, Koellria)

The place we stayed was right on the pass is an old olympic training center for nordic skiing with a complex of dorm type buildings and different size cottages for people to stay. Our first stop, and where we spent the night was at Seminsky Pass which is clearly in the zone of Dark needled mountain tiaga. The area was Dominated by Pinus sibiricus heavily draped in 'old mans beard' lichen (Usnea).  The air was incredible and it was our first snow experience in our trip.  The only place the snow fell that day and night was on the pass.

The coolest thing about Pinus sibirica (which the locals call siberian cedar - underscoring the value of the latin names!!!) is that while it is a 5 needled pine like our own in the Adirondacks, it has large seeds (pine nuts just like the ones we buy from Pinyon pine at home) that are collected and snacked on right out of the cone.  In the Altai they are sold all over the place and are prized as snacks. We picked our own out from under the layer of fresh falling snow...

There is a Stolovaya where you eat excellent Russian food in a nice warm feeling, carved wood panel sided cafeteria. Several families with young nordic skiers were there for early season training. You cant just rollerski on the streets of Gorno, like you can outside of Lake Placid... No sir! I dont imagine you can do that anywhere on normal Russian roads, it is such a big place to take care of!! And so this facility had specially paved paths that were for the purpose.

 There was a biathalon shooting range where we picked up a few spend shells for our young nordic skier friends:-) 

After a lot of walking, talking and great eating and a gathering in the Devchata's (Girls - young women) room we got some sleep and the next morning headed a bit further into the mountains to one of the most beautiful passes (though not as high) in the northern Altai mountains: Cheke-toman pass

The view from the pass is really stunning.  My favorite part was/is  the larches (Larix sibirica, 'leestveneetsa' is the Russian transliteration) burning on the hills.  In the Adirondacks larches are associated with wetlands and low areas, going gold with a backdrop of Abies balsamea.  Here they are an incedibly cold and wind tolerant species that are distributed in several of the forest communities, but are the last remaining tree in the higher elevations.  At the tops of some of the lower peaks they are all that remain on the ridgeline where the rocky steeps slope drop away and leave no soil for tree establishment.  I'm adding a few pictures so you can see some of the beauty of Altai in the fall (no reds, we miss those, but a golden beauty that glows)

Cheke-tomon pass is 1460 meters and has one of the most beautiful views in these mountains
This is the valley you look into from the Cheke-tomon pass.

 Tolono takes Willa and Elsa up to the sacred place on the pass (all passes have sacred places where you pay tribute to the spirits in the native Altai culture) and explains the proper way and the significance. The prayer flags on the hill on the up-side of the pass are plentiful.
Devchata! (young women - girls)

Finally, some of the materials that I used to share with my students are summarized below for the interest of any ecologists.  I find it so fascinating to study this ecosystem and see the similarities to our own in terms of composition, and effects of climate change.

A bullet summary of the paper:
Spatial distribution and temporal
dynamics of high-elevation forest stands
in southern Siberia

Global Ecology and Biogeography,  (2010) 19, 822–830
Vyacheslav I. Kharuk*, Kenneth J. Ranson, Sergey T. Im and
Alexander S. Vdovin
With elevation increase (and thus a harsher environment) forests shifted to steep wind-protected slopes.
A considerable increase in the stand area and increased elevation of the upper forest line was observed (global warming)Warming promotes migration of trees to areas that are less protected from winter desiccation and snow abrasion (i.e. areas with lower values of slope steepness). Climate-induced
forest response has significantly modified the spatial patterns of high-elevation
forests in southern Siberia during the last four decades, as well as tree morphology has shifted as a result of climate change.

The figure below shows that changes in precipitation and temperature in summer and winter in Siberia have been similar to those in the Adirondacks. Significant increases in winter temperatures in the last 100 years.


Both the Adirondack and the Altai are on the edges of biomes and thus are more prone to fast ecological changes due to climate change. (I try to show with below)

The more things change the more they stay the same!!  stay tuned