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From 18th-century explorers to modern-day scientists, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens educates on global climate change with 10-Panel exhibit

July 18, 2023, 4:28 pm

Modern-day explorers check out the wonders of the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens (Dominque Taylor photo).

The Betty Ford Alpine Gardens on Tuesday issued the following press release on a special 10-panel exhibit called Breaking Records: Recording and Collecting Plants from the World’s Coldest and Highest Places, highlighting the expeditions, botanists, and research from the world’s harshest environments:

VAIL, Colo. — We often think of global climate change as a relatively modern-day topic of concern and research. In fact, scientific observations going back to the 1700s detail vegetation in distinct climatic zones across multiple continents.

Setting off on his trans-Atlantic voyage in 1799, scientist Alexander von Humboldt said, “I must find out about the harmony in nature.” Phenology is the science he applied – observing nature and its cycles. 

With botanist Aimé Bonpland, Humboldt – who inspired the likes of Charles Darwin, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau in their studies of the natural world – climbed the almost 21,000-foot Chimborazo in the Andes of Ecuador, making detailed scientific observations along the way.

Vail’s Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is in full bloom, and this internationally-acclaimed, high-altitude botanic sanctuary is also known for its alpine horticulture, education, and conservation. Visitors to the Gardens this summer are treated with a special 10-panel exhibit, Breaking Records: Recording and Collecting Plants from the World’s Coldest and Highest Places, highlighting the expeditions, botanists, and research from the world’s harshest environments. 

Today, scientists are returning to these regions to further document evidence of climate change. They are observing high mountains warming faster than lower elevations, the number of frost days is declining, glaciers are retreating, and snow is remaining for shorter periods. 

Humboldt’s exhibit panel shows a stunning change from what he recorded in 1802. Flash forward to 2012, when scientists revisited Chimborazo and found that glaciers had retreated more than 1,300 feet in elevation and vegetation was found over 1,400 feet higher than Humboldt’s observations. 

“Alpine environments are being disproportionately affected by climate change, especially compared to other ecosystems,” says Nicola Ripley, executive director of Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. “Record-keeping going back in time allows us to document shifts, to see that plants are blooming earlier and setting seed earlier, and this is evidence of climate change.”

What are our high-alpine plants and pollinators telling us about the changing diversity of our environment, and why should we care? 

“We must care, as a Garden highlighting alpine and tundra plants, because the mountains and Artic are being impacted the most,” says Nanette Kuich, education director at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. “As temperatures rise, leaf-out and flowering are occurring earlier, affecting the balance of entire ecosystems.”

Breaking Records illustrates for visitors the accelerated indicators of climate change that we see in plants that have records extending back to the 1400s. Blooms and leaf-out are happening earlier all over the world along with increasing temperatures.

Observing the phenology of the local serviceberries – their lifecycle over time – shows that they flower soon after the ground has thawed from a long winter. Native bees depend on this early spring flower for pollen and nectar to feed themselves and their young. Other wildlife count on serviceberries for sustenance in the fall. But the natural calendar of the serviceberry can be affected by day length, temperature, snowfall, and rain. 

The stories of the explorers and scientists depicted throughout the exhibit are fascinating: Joseph Dalton Hooker, for example, born in 1817, was inspired by his closest friend, Charles Darwin, to sign on as an assistant surgeon in the British Navy at just 22 years old. In 1839, he joined Captain James Clark Ross’s last major voyage of exploration aboard the HMS Erebus to determine the exact location of the magnetic South Pole. Hooker was the first botanist to visit Antarctica, discovering that the continent was dominated by mosses and lichens in areas not covered by ice. Lichens are known to be good indicators of climate change due to their sensitivity to temperature, air pollution, and moisture changes.

From Dr. Marie Brockmann-Jerosch (1877-1952), a Swiss botanist who studied phylogeography – the distribution of alpine plants in the European Alps – we learn what happens to plants and animals when their habitat is covered by Ice Age glaciers. 

Further stories of the extreme challenges of the expeditions include abandoned icebound ships, crew disappearances – even murder. 

And there are the fun facts, too: British mountaineer Eric Shipton collected Cudweed Sawwort at 21,000 feet, the highest documented flowering plant, on a 1935 Mount Everest expedition. However, recent ice cores and tree ring studies taken on the Himalayan Plateau indicate that temperatures have risen 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the last century. This warming has intensified glacier shrinkage, an irreplaceable water source for millions.

Breaking Records appeals to all ages, and the Gardens’ Education Center also has fun and dynamic indoor games for children.

In addition to the special exhibit, the Gardens is the 100th institution to join the Climate Toolkit. Led by Philadelphia-based Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, this forward-thinking collaboration is made up of museums, gardens and zoos that want to aggressively address climate change within their own organizations and to inspire the communities they serve. Currently, there are 32 goals for addressing climate change designed to align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Project Drawdown Table of Solutions. 

“Here at the Gardens, we like to highlight and promote the tremendous research that has been conducted that documents phenology and climate change,” says Kuich. “Factors related to climate change need to be addressed in order to maintain the healthy ecosystems all life depends on.”

Breaking Records: Recording and Collecting Plants from the World’s Coldest and Highest Places, highlighting the expeditions, botanists, and research from the world’s harshest environments, will be on display at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens through the fall (Nanette Kuich photo).

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