CU Boulder’s Mountain Research Station: From base at 9,500 feet, scientists examine climate to top of tundra #ActOnClimate

Professor Frances Ramaley with picnic group. Photo credit: CU Boulder Mountain Research Group

Here’s a report from The Boulder Daily Camera (Charlie Brennan) via The Loveland Reporter-Herald. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s and excerpt:

The University of Colorado Boulder’s Mountain Research Station, within the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest and situated just a few miles west off of Colo. 72, is the jumping-off point for some of the most important ongoing research into the nuanced and changing dynamics of alpine ecology going on anywhere in North America.

Increasingly, the focus of that work relates directly to the signals and effects of climate change — a problem not even being considered by scientists when University of Colorado biology professor Francis Ramaley launched the Tolland Summer Biology Camp in the vicinity in 1909.

That camp, where primary tools included shotguns, shovels and butterfly nets, closed in 1919, and after the university bought the land to the north, it built what was known as the University Camp.

It was a successor to Ramaley, biology professor John W. Marr, who in 1946 would initiate the Mountain Ecology Project, the Mountain Climate Program, and the East Slope Ecology Project, and who was key to establishing the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Ecology, which would merge in 1952 with the University Camp as the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

The frontier of research into the effects of a changing climate, where animals and plants are living at the extreme limits of environmental tolerance at up to 12,000 feet, has continued to be expanded there — with ground-penetrating radar and drones now displacing shotguns and shovels — for well over half a century.

“The idea that humans could have such a pervasive impact on not just regional environment but the global environment, I don’t think was really understandable back then,” Bill Bowman, research station director for the past 29 years, said of its earliest days.

Now, said Bowman, a professor in the CU Boulder Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, “It is the very theme of research that goes on there, the impacts of humans on the environment.”

An alphabet soup of laboratories and agencies participate directly in research based out of the research station. They include not just INSTAAR, the National Ecological Observatory Network, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Critical Zone Observatory, but also researchers who don’t have weighty acronyms anchored to their curriculum vitae.

“We’ve got everything from individual grad students doing their masters theses, up to the groups that have been working up there for almost 40 years now,” Bowman said. “And so really, anybody can do research up there. We don’t make a distinction about whether they are rich and famous, or just starting in science. We really take pride in that a lot of researchers get their first experience in doing research up there.”

[…]

The Mountain Research Station base facilities, including the John W. Marr Alpine Laboratory, a family lodge with capacity for up to 32 visitors, and the Kiowa Laboratory and Classroom, with meeting space to accommodate 24, are perched at a mere 9,500 feet.

With individual data collection points spread across a challenging terrain topping out with the highest at 12,267 feet, and snow that can pile up in some spots as deep as 15 to 20 feet, simply navigating this living laboratory can be an imposing challenge.

But many of those who work there consider the opportunity to do so a gift. An example would be Duane Kitzis, a senior research associate for CU Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, who works for the Global Monitoring Division of the Earth System Research Laboratory at NOAA. He has been going up Niwot Ridge since 1987, collecting air samples that are used to provide calibration material for the measurement of greenhouse gases at laboratories around the world. He now makes more than 400 standard air measurements per year up there…

Katharine Suding is the lead investigator for one of the major research programs being conducted in the breathtaking landscape above the research station. Known as the Niwot Ridge Long Term Ecological Research program, it’s an interdisciplinary research initiative aimed at building a predictive understanding of ecological processes in high-elevation mountain ecosystems, and contributing to broad advances in ecology.

“We need long-term studying and monitoring of these complex systems to start being able to understand how they work and predict how they’re going to work in the future,” Suding said of the project, supported by funding from the National Science Foundation.

The Niwot Ridge research program has climate records (both temperature and precipitation) dating to 1952 at four places along an elevation gradient topping out at its “D1” site; that’s the one perched at 12,267 feet.

Suding’s project has the regular involvement of about 15 faculty, eight staff members, 25 graduate students and 10 undergraduates at CU Boulder. A few are stationed full time at the research station, and one or two rarely stray from the work under microscopes examining samples at laboratories down in Boulder. Most split their time between the city and the alpine world.

On a recent trip — by snowcat, across the snow that still blanketed the landscape well into May — through her program’s 4-square-mile research area, Suding, a professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at CU and fellow at INSTAAR, observed the interplay of snowpack, snowmelt, changes in temperature and air quality impact the fragile ecosystem in myriad ways.

“We know that in the forests, with a longer summer, the forests don’t do as well, because they get really stressed out in July and August, when it’s really hot and they don’t have the moisture,” she said. “We thought this tree line would go up, if the summer was longer and hotter. But it is not going up, because the young trees can’t start growing up here because it’s too dry.”

[…]

Suding’s research territory borders on the westernmost reaches of the Boulder Watershed, where CU Boulder scientists also collect data, only working under permission from city officials. At the top of the watershed, at 12,513 feet, sits Arikaree Glacier, which Suding’s predecessor Mark Williams predicted could vanish completely in 20 to 25 years. That sobering forecast hasn’t changed.

Predicting our climate future, according to Suding, depends on understanding how our ecology has evolved, particularly in response to the dramatic changes wreaked by the Industrial Revolution.

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