In 2015, University of Washington biologist Elli Theobald and her fellow researchers caught a glimpse of the future.
"The climate conditions in that year happened to mimic what we expect the climate conditions to be in the 2080s under unabated climate change," Theobald says.
Different flower species responded differently to the hot, dry weather. Some flowered a little earlier. Others flowered a lot earlier. Some flowered for a shorter time. And others flowered for a longer time.
The upshot is that future visitors to wildflower meadows like those on Mount Rainier could have a very different experience from the one we’re used to having today.
"Now, we expect to see certain flowers flowering together, but, in the future, we don’t expect to see those flowers flowering together," Theobald explains. "So our grandkids will see really different flowering communities than we’re seeing now."
The earlier the snow melted in a given spot, the more different the plant communities were from what we see today.
Theobald's results, based on spending six years studying forty-eight wildflower species in seventy plots, were published in Ecology in October.
Past studies of the effects of climate change on wildflowers focused on individual species. This study is one of the first to examine the whole community of plants--and how community-level changes might influence which plants survive and which plants don't.
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With the new mix of wildflowers, different pollinators might visit subalpine meadows at different times.
That's because different flowers provide different amounts of nectar--a source of sugar--and pollen--a source of protein. Right now, Rainier's meadows offer a pretty balanced mix, but, in the future, there might be "booms" and "busts" of nectar and pollen.
In other words, Theobald explains: "the pollinators will have a different buffet than they have now. And so that'll probably mean that some pollinators like the new buffet and some pollinators don't like it."
And, with pollinators showing up at different times, some flowers will get pollinated and others might not. And that could affect which flowers survive climate change--and which flowers our grandchildren never see.