Sierra Summit

Conversations and observations about California's mountains

August 5, 2008
On snow and 'conies' - old science, new insights in the Sierra

The mountain I climbed Sunday near Lake Tahoe offered a remarkable view of the Sierra Buttes, the north fork of the American River, even the Coast Range far to the west.

But it was a brief entry in the peak's summit register that really caught my attention. On Oct. 7, 2002, a hiker from Orangevale jotted the following observation in a small notebook and left it on the mountain in an ammo can: "Not much snow left on the mountains."

You know what? I could have written the same thing Sunday - and we're not even close to October.

Snow is melting fast from the Sierra Nevada nowadays - just one of many signs that global warming is already taking a toll here in our own backyard. This week, I'm visiting Yosemite National Park to check in with a team of scientists investigating another piece of the climate change puzzle - the movement of small mammals - from mice to marmots - upslope toward cooler locales.

One of the cutest and most severely impacted of such species is the pica, also known as the Yosemite cony. In some locations, conies have virtually disappeared from their old haunts.

In July 1915, C.L. Camp, a member of the pioneering Joseph Grinnell expedition, sketched a Yosemite cony in his notebook - a drawing that - believe it or not - you can see on-line at (Camp didn't miss much; he drew the cony from the side, staring straight ahead, even barking!): &scan_directory=v557_s3&section_order=3&page=182&orig_query=331078

What climate change lessons will scientists in Yosemite today draw from re-surveying Grinnell's old camps and comparing notes? Stay posted for future reports.

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About Sierra Summit

The Author
Tom Knudson lives in the Sierra Nevada and travels widely throughout the range. His hobbies include fly-fishing, backpacking and cross-country skiing. He is the recipient of numerous journalistic awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes, one for a 1992 Sacramento Bee series "Sierra in Peril," a watershed work about environmental threats to the mountain range. E-mail Tom at

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