Natural Community Systems -- Photo Guide

Alpine tundra system

alpine tundra system on Mt. Washington (photo by Ben Kimball for the NH Natural Heritage Bureau)  alpine tundra system on Mt. Washington (photo by Ben Kimball for the NH Natural Heritage Bureau)

Alpine tundra system on Mt. Washington (photos by Ben Kimball)

Description:  The primary natural community system in New Hampshire's alpine zones is the alpine tundra system. It is restricted to the higher peaks of the White Mountains.  This system is dominated by classic sedge - rush - heath meadows, felsenmeer barrens, and other well drained natural communities that occupy most of the summits, ridges and slopes above treeline (usually above 4,900 ft. but also down to about 4,200 ft. on exposed ridges of a few higher peaks).  It contrasts with alpine ravine/snowbank systems, which occur in the steep, wet, and snow-laden environments of the state's large, high-elevation ravines.  Both of these systems contrast with the subalpine heath - krummholz/rocky bald system found on summits and ridges from 3,0004,900 feet.  Alpine/subalpine bog systems occur as relatively small but distinct peatland patches in some alpine and subalpine areas.

The five diagnostic natural communities below comprise a high percentage of the area in the alpine tundra system.  Within this mosaic smaller patches of several other communities are found, along with occasional alpine cliffs.  Black spruce - balsam fir krummholz is common as a narrow band at the transition to spruce - fir forest and also occurs as small island patches above treeline.  Small patches of alpine herbaceous snowbank/rill communities are also found in the mosaic, but the largest patches of these communities occur in alpine ravine/snowbank systems in Tuckerman Ravine, Oakes Gulf, and Great Gulf.

There are about 70 plant species largely restricted to the alpine zones of the White Mountains.  The dominant plants of this system include dwarf alpine shrubs (bilberry, cranberry, and blueberry heaths, and other dwarf shrubs), alpine sedges and rushes, and relatively few forbs.  Nearly all of these plants are perennials.  The alpine-restricted species found in the alpine tundra (examples listed below) are absent or in much-reduced abundance on lower subalpine heath - krummholz/rocky bald systems.  Endemic or near-endemic species of alpine areas of northeastern North America include Prenanthes boottii (Boott's rattlesnake-root), Potentilla robbinsiana (dwarf cinquefoil), and Geum peckii (mountain avens).

In New Hampshire, alpine tundra systems are restricted to the Presidential Range (from Mt. Madison in the north to Mt. Pierce in the south), the crest of Franconia Ridge, and smaller but nonetheless substantial patches on Mt. Moosilauke, Mt. Guyot, and Bondcliff.

Diagnostic natural communities:

      • Diapensia shrubland (S1)

      • Alpine heath snowbank (S1S2)

      • Bigelow's sedge meadow (S1)

      • Sedge - rush - heath meadow (S1)

      • Felsenmeer barrens (S2)

Occasional or peripheral natural communities:

      • Black spruce - balsam fir krummholz (S2S3)

      • Labrador tea heath - krummholz (S2)

      • Montane landslide barren and thicket (S3S4)

      • Alpine herbaceous snowbank/rill (S1)

      • Moist alpine herb - heath meadow (S1)

Landscape settings
: exposed summits and ridges

Soils: shallow, mostly very acidic, well drained organic and/or coarse mineral material (sand, gravel, stone) over bedrock; patterned frost-action features are evident in places (rock rings, rock stripes, soil boils, and stone terraces resulting from differential movement of coarse and fine mineral material); also open talus and felsenmeer

Spatial pattern: small to large patches (51,000+ acres), irregular zonation; patterned frost-action features evident within some communities

Physiognomy: sparsely vegetated, dwarf shrubland, and herbaceous vegetation with scattered krummholz (stunted trees < two meters tall)

Distribution: White Mountains

Characteristic species:

Species largely restricted to the alpine tundra system:

   Carex bigelowii (Bigelow's sedge)
   Juncus trifidus (highland rush)
   Hierochloe alpina (alpine sweet grass)
   Geum peckii (mountain avens) -- near endemic
   Prenanthes boottii (Boott's rattlesnake-root) -- northeastern endemic
   Potentilla robbinsiana (dwarf cinquefoil) -- endemic

Dwarf shrubs
   Diapensia lapponica (diapensia)
   Salix uva-ursi (bearberry willow)
   Betula glandulosa (dwarf birch)
   Betula minor (small birch)
   Loiseleuria procumbens (alpine azalea)
   Rhododendron lapponicum (Lapland rosebay)
   Phyllodoce caerulea (mountain-heath)

Associated natural community systems:  At lower elevations, the alpine tundra system most often transitions directly to high-elevation spruce - fir forest system, though occasionally it transitions to subalpine heath - krummholz/rocky bald systems. Another associated natural community system is the alpine ravine/snowbank system. A few occurrences of alpine/subalpine bog systems are embedded in the alpine tundra system of the Presidential Range, but they are most commonly associated with subalpine heath - krummholz/rocky bald systems at slightly lower elevations.

alpine natural communities

Alpine tundra system in the Presidential Range in early June (photo by Ben Kimball for the NH Natural Heritage Bureau)
Alpine tundra system in the Presidential Range in early June (photo by Ben Kimball)

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