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In this Nature League Field Trip, Brit gets a first-hand look at the challenges facing forests in the Rocky Mountains, including fires, drought, climate change, and pine beetles.

Special thanks to Professor Diana Six at the University of Montana for additional footage.

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Welcome back to Nature League. It's the second week of the month, and that means it's time for a field trip. This month is all about plants, so for this field trip, we're going to explore some of the current challenges facing forests in Glacier National Park. 


Growing up in Florida, I often dreamed of coming out here and seeing the forests that define the northwest United States. Since moving to Montana, I've been inspired by all the tree species that call this region home. However, forests here in Glacier National Park and in surrounding areas are up against a lot of challenges. The U.S. National Park Service's names three main threats to the forests of these regions: drought, temperature changes, and pathogens. There's no better way to learn about these threats than to see them up close and personal.

Glacier National Park is named for, spoiler alert, its glaciers; however, because of warming trends being seen globally, the namesake of Glacier National Park potentially will go away. Experts are predicting that, potentially around the year 2030, all of the glaciers in Glacier National Park could be gone. Even though warming is being seen pretty much in all reaches of the globe, because of the latitude and also the geographical location of Glacier National Park, the rate of warming is actually happening 1.8 times faster here than the global average.

Because the temperatures here are changing more rapidly than the global average, that means the plants and animals that live here are being forced to either move, adapt, or die. Plants in particular are being affected, because, unlike animals or other organisms that can move, plants pretty much stay where the are. And, that means they rely of their water from things like the rain or the snow. With a warming climate, there's actually more rain than there is snow. Rain moves faster through the system, and that is leaving plants basically in drought conditions.

In addition to droughts, changing temperatures, and fires, pathogens are one of the biggest threats to the forests in this area. One of the main pathogens is an insect called the mountain pine beetle, and it's a kind of bark beetle. Pine beetles are native to this region; however, changes in climate and other situations with the environment have made it to where they are causing way more damage than normal. Shorter winters and also warmer temperatures means that not as many of them are dying over winter, and so there's way more of them and they're attacking more trees. Drought also has something to do with this. Plants that are stressed out by drought conditions will actually be more susceptible to pathogens.

Fire comes into the story, as well. When trees are in drought conditions, they'll be stressed, which leaves them susceptible to pathogens, which then can kill them, which then can provide a lot of fuel for fires. And, fires have been increasing and causing massive destruction around these parts.

So, if you look at the big picture, all of the threats to forests out here are really kind of working synergistically, and this means a lot of different complications for managers and people making decisions about what to do to protect the forests.

And now, a word, not from our sponsors, but from the dictionary. Welcome to this month's wild word. Once a month on Nature League, we'll look at the etymology, or origin and history, of words related to nature. This month's theme is plants, and there are simply way too many interesting etymology stories within this theme to just pick one word. So, for this month's wild word, we're doing a lightning round of some of my favorite plant names. Let's go!

Daisy: this is actually a contraction of the old English phrase "dæges Ä“age", meaning "day's eye", named for the fact that daisies open during the day.

Tulip: from the Turkish "tülbentu" and Persian "dulband", meaning "turban" for the shape of the petals.

Chrysanthemum: from the Greek "krysos," meaning "gold," and "anthemom," meaning "flower," this is, in fact, a golden flower.

Dandelion: from the Latin "dens," meaning "tooth," and "leo," meaning "lion," or, more recently, the old French phrase "dent de lion," which means "lion's tooth." This name comes from the toothed leaves of the plant.

Lavender: from the Latin "lavare," meaning "to wash," lavender was historically used as a scent for fabrics and baths.

Eucalyptus: from the Greek prefix "eu," meaning "well" or "true," and "kaluptós," meaning "covered," this describes the covering on eucalyptus buds.

Basil: from the Greek "vasilias," meaning "king," basil's believed to have been used in royal perfumes. Another option has to do with the mythical creature called a basilisk. Some myths note that basil leaves could cure a deadly gaze from a basilisk. In fact, in Latin, both the monster and herb are called basiliscus.

Pansy: from the Latin "pensare," meaning "consider," pansies have been used throughout time as a symbol of thoughtfulness.

Orchid: this one is good. From the Greek, "orkhis," meaning "testicle," this name comes from the shape of its roots. 

As you can see, there are some really fun word origins and histories of plant names, and with hundreds of thousands of plant species on Earth, there are way more stories than the ones we've looked at here. And all of that is pretty wild.

The plant and forest communities out here in the Rocky Mountains are incredible. However, these systems are rapidly changing due to threats like changing temperatures, fires, droughts, and also pathogens. Some people view these changes as something to be mourned, while others view it as just another example of a system changing over time. Either way, the decisions facing forest managers in light of a changing climate are complicated; however, I think these systems are worth the time and effort required to figure it out.