From Tucson to the Tundra

Last year the members of the Eco Club at Sabino High School in Tucson, Arizona, were enthusiastic BioBlitzers at Saguaro National Park, their home field, where they counted things like frogs that live in small granite pools in the desert. They liked that so well they returned later to count giant saguaro cactuses in a square-mile-section of the park that hadn’t been surveyed in decades. Yesterday afternoon found them at 11,700 feet in the Colorado Rockies, bent over a wood frame that enclosed a square-meter-section of alpine tundra. They were attempting to count all the tiny plants that live in that square meter and to estimate how much of it each species covers.

“One thing you might notice,” said Isabel Ashton, the Park Service biologist who was helping them, “is that plants in the alpine overlap.” This makes them trickier to count than saguaros.


Tucson students contemplate life in the alpine zone in Rocky Mountain National Park. From left to right: Daryan Godfrey, Peter Gacon, Seneca Vuke, Jackie Waldron, and their teacher, Melissa Kinsey (seated). Photo by John Francis/NGS

The students seemed unphased by that or by the chill wind. “I like botany. I don’t know much about it, but I want to make a career in botany,” said Jackie Waldron, 16, whose long black hair peaked out a of blue watchcap, and whose hands were pulled so far up into her hoodie sweatshirt that only her flame-red fingernails showed. “I’ve only left Tucson twice before to go to California,” said Daryan Godfrey, 17, who’s thinking of entomology. Seneca Vuke, who was handling the clipboard, reported 18 plant species in their square meter: 17 vascular and one succulent.

There was a lot of curly sedge, which Ashton said should continue to do well even as climate change pushes the tundra zone upslope. There was some alpine sandwort and one alpine parsley. And off to one edge of the square, partially hidden by something whose name escaped on the wind, was a single alpine primrose. Its five-petaled white flower was so tiny it seemed to straddle the line between fact and fairy tale. As did the whole trip for Melissa Kinsey, the teacher who animates the Eco Club. When the Park Service invited her last year to bring the club to the Rockies, she said, “I thought my heart was going to die.”

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Robert Kunzig is Senior Environment Editor for National Geographic magazine.