Guest Videos: Arctic Dwarf Willows and Vermont’s Camel’s Hump

You’ve heard of weeping willows? That’s a creeping willow, Salix arctica!

But you don’t need to go up into the Arctic to see these plants.

After the last continental glaciers melted away, some 11,000 years ago, tundra communities stood their ground at higher elevations wherever conditions were still suitable for them.

A few of these are still around today.

In the 1980s, for instance, a botanist warned me, near the top of Camel’s Hump, in Vermont, not to step on a willow tree!

In what are now temperate latitudes, you must carefully walk and climb in order to protect these fragile ice-age relicts.

North of the Arctic Circle, not so much.

Large parts of the northern continents looked like that during the last ice age. And somehow huge animals lived on tiny plants like those, while enormous cats and other carnivores preyed upon the plant-eaters.

How Earth changes over a relatively short span of time!

All of that non-tundra vegetation — the eastern US arctic plant community being limited to a few patches at the top of Camel’s Hump and, I think, Mount Mansfield and perhaps Mount Washington — moved northward into what’s now New England and New York from refuges in other, warmer places, starting right after the last ice age.

Plants, even arctic ones, DO move. They just shift around gradually enough that we don’t notice it.

The botanist told me that the beech-birch-maple forest, which covers the region today and is almost all of the trees you see in the valley and lower mountain slopes in the video, waited out the last ice age in a refuge down in the Smoky Mountains!

Will ice sheets return, cycling widespread tundra conditions back through those truly ancient mountain ranges (the Taconic and Green Mountains) as they have done dozens of times during the last two and a half million years?

If so, will there be humans around to explore and photograph the new landscape?

Time will tell. But for some reason, I now want to clone sabercats (land sharks of the last ice age) and wooly mammoths, just to be prepared.

James St. John, CC BY 2.0

Then again . . .

Edited April 23, 2019

Featured Image: Matt Levin, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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