Death Valley National Park: Timing is Everything

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

When I was seven, I traveled to South Korea to visit family and friends. When I arrived after a 12-hour plane ride, I discovered that somehow 28 hours had passed since I left the airport. This was my first experience with global time differences and jetlag; South Korea is 16 hours ahead of California.

Imagine for a moment if you couldn’t adapt to jetlag. What if you were forced to wake and sleep at the same time no matter how the environment shifts around you? Aside from the obvious annoyance, you would find yourself unable to live. What grocery stores remain open at 4 in the morning? What restaurants? Eventually, if you don’t learn to adapt, you’ll die.

Utterly dark metaphor aside, this is actually playing out in ecosystems around the world. Before we get to the depressing stuff, let’s revisit Death Valley.

What if plants and pollinators appeared at different times? Catastrophe.

The superbloom we discussed in my previous post is a great study case in the concept of phenology. Phenology is essentially timing, especially in regards to seasonal patterns. When do the winter rains hit? Phenology. When will it finally get warm again? Phenology. Why couldn’t I fall asleep in South Korea? I was experiencing a change in phenology.

Everything about Death Valley’s wildflowers are tied to phenology. In order for a massive blooming event to occur, everything has to happen perfectly. First, a significant early rain has to hit in September or October; this helps dissolve the seeds’ protective covering and stimulates their germination. Next, the wildflowers need enough rain to survive, but if this rain comes too sporadically, the growing sprouts could die before they pierce the surface of the soil. Two years could receive the same amount of rain, but one will fail to produce a superbloom because it had infrequent deluges rather than consistent, gentle rain.

Phenology affected my own enjoyment of the superbloom. Due to differences in temperature, aridity, and wind levels, the low-elevation flowers I aimed to see usually die off before I could make the trip south. I still saw a quite beautiful array of high-elevation flowers, but I left determined to return.

Ty has no concept of phenology. He is always ready for a walk or to bark at a "threat" in the middle of the night.

For countless species of plants, animals, and fungi, timing is everything. Unfortunately, human activities have begun to alter the phenology of certain events. In our changing climate, spring is coming earlier in many places. Winters are becoming shorter (to the chagrin of Game of Thrones fans everywhere). Fire seasons are lengthening. Droughts are becoming more pronounced. This shift in timing is affecting quite a bit. As a concerning example, many migratory birds are failing to keep up with phenological changes in the food sources they rely on. Many plants and insects, driven by temperature-related cues, are sprouting or maturing earlier than they historically have. Migratory birds of all shapes and sizes rely on the springtime abundance of plants and insects to adequately feed their young and to recover from their own grueling migration. This is exactly why they migrate thousands of miles in the first place! Unfortunately, migratory birds are changing their timing at a slower rate than the prey species they rely on. If this keeps up, many of these migratory birds will risk extinction.

Seasonal vernal pools provide habitat for threatened fairy shrimp and stopovers for migratory birds. A mismatch in timing will be costly.

The good news is you can be a part of the change that reverses this trend. As we continue to advocate for a carbon-neutral world, use this case study as one more reason to keep pushing forward. Humans have an unparalleled ability to adapt to adversity. We will figure this out.

Educational Sources: Abatzoglou, John T. and Williams, Park A. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests. 2016.

Fuchs, Brian. National Drought Mitigation Center: University of Nebraska, Lincoln. U.S. Drought Monitor: California. January 22nd, 2019.

National Park Service. Death Valley National Park. Wildflowers. 2018.

Rubenstein, Madeleine. United States Geological Survey. When Timing is Everything: Migratory Bird Phenology in a Changing Climate. 2017.

Photo Credits:

Ewald, Jacob. 2016. Death Valley National Park, Inyo County, California.

Ewald, Jacob. 2018. Clover Creek Preserve, Redding, California.

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