Cold air pools: Resistant or more vulnerable to warming?

Millions of species are on the move in search of cooler climes. Most plants and animals have evolved to live and function optimally within a very narrow temperature range. Climate change is pushing species to their limits, leading them to migrate toward the poles and up mountain slopes to more tolerable temperatures.

Many species unfortunately face barriers to moving. Plants cannot move like animals and so may not be able to track cooler temperatures as easily. Roads and cities obstruct wildlife movement, while species that successfully migrate may find that a vital resource is missing in their new environment. And what happens when a species reaches the peak and runs out of mountain to climb?

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High topographic variation such as mountains and valleys create ideal conditions for cold air pooling.

Scientists recently found that cold air pools (CAPs) have the potential to maintain havens for wildlife under warming. CAPs are pressure inversions where cold, dense air becomes trapped and concentrated and are therefore cooler and moister than the surrounding area. CAPs often form in areas of high topographic variation such as in valleys adjacent to mountains.

Devils Postpile offers a case study on the potential of CAPs to maintain climate change refugia, areas that are relatively buffered from climate change and that enable the persistence of valued resources such as wildlife, habitats, and natural resources [1]. CAPs could ameliorate warming and help maintain favorable conditions such as wet meadows and stream habitats, or they may be more vulnerable to warming than other areas.

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Cold air pools may help maintain areas with cool and wet conditions such as Soda Springs Meadow at Devils Postpile.

With the road from town to Devils Postpile finally clear of snow, I roamed around the monument this week and began assessing the phenology of plants with the help of park staff and other interns. If we find that plants within CAPs are developing later than those outside of CAPs and that CAPs are resistant to warming, the National Park Service could manage the monument and other wilderness areas containing CAPs as climate change refugia. CAPs hold the potential to facilitate wildlife adaptation to climate change and maintain natural resources such as freshwater and fish in some regions…pretty cool!

[1] Morelli et al. 2016. Managing Climate Change Refugia for Climate Adaptation. PLOS ONE 12(1): e0169725.

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