Science Weekly: What in the world are krummholz?

On Friday, the Center for Environmental Journalism took a field trip to visit Niwot Ridge, about 25 miles west of Boulder, Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains. As we hiked higher above the tree line, we encountered a bizarre sight – trees growing along the ground, sweeping across the landscape in a slow-motion race. The only thing stranger than the sight of these plants was the name assigned to them: krummholz.

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In German, krummholz means “crooked wood,” but their only crime is that these trees don’t conform to traditional tree beauty standards. And in different parts the country, krummholz will take different shapes. On top of Niwot Ridge in the Rocky Mountains, they look like squished islands of green from afar, and gnarly, knotted shrubbery up close.

These spruce and fir are simply trying to survive at high altitude on the tundra, with harsh winds, temperatures, and severe, snowy winters. Hunkering close to the ground, they appear to crawl along the ridge, and indeed, they do – up to three centimeters per year on average. Starting at higher altitudes and winding their way down as the wind directs them, these trees have adapted to grow new branches and roots that allow them to inch along, leaving dead, warped matter in their wake. Krummholz also live for a long time, like leafy turtles of the tundra.

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To learn more about krummholz, read this thorough article by Tom Yulsman, Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism, or hear an excerpt below from Bill Bowman, our guide for the day atop the mountain and Director of the Mountain Research Station at Niwot Ridge.

 

 

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