Students conduct alpine fieldwork on the effects of climate change and air pollution

July 25, 2013

Perched on a mountain ridge at 10,000 feet, University of Colorado Boulder senior Taylor Stratton watches pikas scurrying among boulders and rocky debris. The furry, potato-sized mammals wear colored ear tags that identify them by their home turf, enabling Stratton to track their movements.

“There’s Goldilocks,” said Stratton, pointing out a juvenile pika with a distinctive golden coloring. “I’ve fallen in love with that one in particular. I want to know if pikas will be able to adapt to a warming, changing climate. If they went extinct, I think that would be a great loss.”

Lower down the wind-swept ridge Brian Shreve collects soil and plant samples in one of the 20 marked-off plots that dot the slope. He is looking for changes in the diversity of plants as a result of nitrogen pollution.

“It’s good to get out of the classroom,” said Shreve, an Army veteran attending CU-Boulder on the G.I. Bill. “To actually do the science and be involved in creating the project instead of just reading about it is a richer experience.”

This summer the two students have been working in the alpine environment of the Colorado Rocky Mountains 26 miles west of Boulder. They are part of the 20 other undergraduates and 30 or so researchers and graduate students who are conducting research at the CU-Boulder Mountain Research Station, an interdisciplinary facility of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. Topics studied at the station range from plant and animal ecology to hydrology and atmospheric science.

The undergraduate experience at the station provides students with hands-on training in advanced research techniques at what is widely regarded as the best known site in the world specializing in alpine environmental science. Students and researchers come from all over the country to the station, which has been in operation for 93 years. Research goes on year round, but summer is the busiest time.

Undergraduate research opportunities

Some CU-Boulder undergraduate honor students conduct independent research and commute to the station during the day.  Others are supported by grants, such as the CU-Boulder Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), a program funded by the National Science Foundation to provide students with an opportunity to participate in a variety of research projects. REU students receive a stipend and stay in cabins at the station during a 10-week summer program.

“The best part of my job is living up here in the summer,” said Bill Bowman, professor, ecology and evolutionary biology, who has been working in the alpine ecosystem for 24 years, 23 as the facility’s director.

One of Bowman’s research interests is nitrogen deposition in the high mountains. A form of acid rain, nitrogen deposition is a serious environmental problem that comes from burning fossil fuels and from agriculture.  This summer he is mentoring Shreve, an ecology and evolutionary biology major.

Shreve is working with Bowman and Jason Neff, associate professor of geological sciences, to study the chemistry of dust that blows in and settles on the ground, which can potentially mitigate or reverse the environmental impact of this type of acid rain. They have set out to determine the source of elements in the soil—calcium in particular, since it can neutralize the acidity of the soil.

“Bill and Jason have been working in the scientific field for a long time,” said Shreve, “and I get pieces of knowledge from them that I might not learn in the classroom. Another benefit is the many different research projects happening in a variety of fields up here. I get exposed to them and learn a little about a lot.”

Stratton, who is triple majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, environmental science with an emphasis in natural resources, and geography, plans to continue her pika research in graduate school. Last summer she volunteered as a field technician for Chris Ray, a research associate at CU-Boulder, who studies population biology—how and why plant and animal populations fluctuate.

Alpine fieldwork takes students out of the classroom

Ray has been conducting a long-term study of the American pika and its response to climate. She also is the education and outreach coordinator for the Niwot Ridge Long Term Ecological Research program. For the past 20 years, Ray has involved more than 80 undergraduates in pika research.

“Students really enjoy the challenges of alpine fieldwork,” said Ray, “and I really enjoy teaching one-on-one in the wilderness. I don’t teach in the classroom because I prefer to provide an individualized curriculum and hands-on opportunities. I also love to see how these experiences help shape their careers. There’s nothing better than seeing my former field assistants continue in ecology!”

This summer Stratton is participating in the REU program assisting Ray and working on her own pika research project on population dynamics. Using Ray’s data from past tagged years, Stratton’s work involves trapping pikas, tagging them and observing new sites.  She hikes to the rocky debris fields, called taluses, around Niwot Ridge looking for tagged pikas to see if they have moved into new areas.

“I honestly believe I have the best job in the world,” said Stratton. “I get to be outside surrounded by amazing views every day doing something I love. Every day is a good day up here.”

So, why should people care about the loss of some plants and a few pikas in Colorado’s mountains?

Monitoring mountain ecology shows environmental changes

Alpine organisms are good environmental sentinels—like canaries in coal mines—providing information about trends in biological responses to climate change and air pollution. Mountains are good for environmental monitoring because researchers can detect direct impacts of certain environmental changes. Climate change, for example, is impacted by global physical factors (greenhouse gases, amount of incoming solar radiation), along with local factors such as urbanization, which results in more land covered by asphalt, and thus fewer trees and grass, Bowman said.

“The lack of major human disturbance in the mountains allows us to more directly monitor the impacts of climate change and air pollution,” said Bowman, who works with both undergraduates and grad students. He also enjoys working with high school students.

The CU-Boulder Science Discovery program collaborates with the alpine research station and the Boulder Valley School District to offer high school students opportunities to conduct ecological field research. Students are mentored by undergraduates who are in turn mentored by graduate students working at the station, thus forming a succession of alpine experience.

“Personally I get a lot of satisfaction working with students,” said Bowman, “but I also get a really good research project out of the experience. I’ve had undergraduates write peer-reviewed papers. It’s an amazing thing to watch these students springboard on and do ground-breaking things.”