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Alpine Adaptations

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Alpine biomes are usually located at high elevations above 10,000 feet (3048 m). This is not the case for Marys Peak since it’s only a little over 4,100 feet (1249 m). As a result, Marys Peak is classified as a “sub-alpine” microclimate within a larger environment.

Conditions can be harsh in both alpine and sub-alpine regions. A cold wind can blow constantly. Temperatures can fluctuate wildly, sometimes during the course of a day. Winter conditions with snow and ice can last a particularly long time – in some places up to nine months out of the year! In order to survive, life has to adapt.

Considering what they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, it’s not a huge surprise that there are only about two hundred types of alpine plants worldwide. The cold conditions keep organic materials from decomposing quickly, so most alpine soils are starved for nutrients. Add in the constant wind and heavy snows, and it’s amazing that any plants can survive here at all.

Alpine plants have adapted to these conditions in several unique ways:

  1. They grow low to the ground which protects them from the wind and snow.
  2. They can regulate chemicals in their stems and leaves that keep their tissues from freezing. This phenomenon is called freezing-point depression, and it’s the same reason we put anti-freeze into our cars during cold weather. The anti-freeze requires a much lower temperature to become solid compared to other liquids like water, so the engine can still run even though the temperature around it is below the freezing-point.
  3. Some alpine plants can move water into empty pockets between their cells so if it freezes it won’t cause any permanent damage.
  4. They will flower early, usually right after a thaw in the snow, and reproduce quickly.
  5. They have a special way (still not fully understood by scientists) to deal with the more intense levels of ultraviolet light found at higher altitudes.

Related Information: Marys Peak

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