By Published: June 1, 2020

CU Boulder alum heads team in Himalayas for National Geographic climate-research mission

When she went to Nepal in 2019 to co-lead a geology team for the ambitious, multi-disciplinary National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition, Mary Hubbard was going back to the past in more ways than one.

Mary Hubbard

At the top of the page: Himalayas, Nepal Above: Mary Hubbard

Time machine, take one: Hubbard (Geol’81), a professor of Earth Sciences at Montana State University who received her BS from the University of Colorado Boulder, had done field work in the Himalayas in the mid-1980s while pursuing her 1988 PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

“That work centered on how mountains form, the geologic crustal processes in the earth that make mountains,” she says.

During planning for the expedition, a colleague suggested she’d make a great part of the team, which was going to study the impacts of climate change on different environments.

“He said, ‘You haven’t been back? What’s wrong with you? You’ve got to go back,’” recalls Hubbard. “When I did get back, after 28 years, I just couldn’t believe the mountains. I remember hiking up the trail, huffing and puffing a bit more than when I was 26.”

Time machine, take two: Hubbard’s team climbed deep into the Gokyo Valley, spending a few weeks in the shadow of Mount Everest to take sediment cores from two alpine lakes at more than 15,000 feet of elevation, hoping to look into the region’s climatic past.

“The lakes contain layers of sediment that have accumulated on the bottom,” Hubbard says in a short National Geographic video, History is in the Mud. The cores, she says, serve as a kind of “tape recorder,” that reveal the history of environmental conditions, zoology, and more, layer by sedimentary layer, year after year, across centuries.

The expedition of which her team was a part included more than 30 international researchers in geology, biology, glaciology, meteorology and mapping—as well as world-famous mountaineer Pete Athens, who served as climbing lead.

Everest 2

Mary Hubbard standing in the shadow of Mt. Everest.

National Geographic, which described the mission as “the most comprehensive single scientific expedition to the mountain in history,” is scheduled to release an hour-long special on all aspects of the expedition June 30. The research in Nepal is part of a world-wide project to examine the impacts of climate change on the planet’s vital life-support systems, studying the world’s highest mountains as well as the Earth’s rainforests and ocean.

“They started with the highest place on earth,” Hubbard says of the expedition in Nepal. “The Himalayas are kind of like a water tower for 20% of the world’s population. If you tweak the temperature a little, you get a big result.”

Hubbard’s co-leader was Ananta Gajurel, a geologist from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.  Their geology team also included her Nepali PhD student, Bibek Giri, and six Nepali MS students from the Tri Chandra Multiple Campus in Kathmandu. The lakes in Gokyo Valley were partially frozen when they arrived, but eventually they took to the water in a boat built out of two rubber rafts  and a PVC-frame. They then dropped a cylinder to the bottom to collect sediment.

“The coring device is a plexiglass tube about a meter long, which you drop to the bottom,” she says. “Then you use a weighted cylinder … to hammer the tube into the mud and pull the whole thing up.”

Hubbard’s team eventually sent samples from two cores from two lakes to a lab at the University of California, Irvine, for Carbon-14 dating.

“It goes back about 1,800 years,” she says. “The next thing is to look at that record and see how it changes over 1,800 years, as a proxy for environmental change.”

Gajurel’s team in Nepal is now piecing together that record through the lens of diatoms (a group of algae) found, while Hubbard’s team is examining pollen. While the cores don’t have the resolution in the youngest time interval to reveal much about the current era of human-induced climate change, they will provide an important baseline for climate researchers.

Hubbard was impressed by the breadth and depth of the mission.

“The fact that Nat Geo was able to pull together so many scientific disciplines, who came together in one place to look at one problem, is one of the coolest things about this expedition,” she says.

The fact that Nat Geo was able to pull together so many scientific disciplines, who came together in one place to look at one problem, is one of the coolest things about this expedition"

Hubbard spent her early years in Chicago and became enamored of the American West during family vacations. The family moved to Aspen when she was in high school. Graduating from Aspen High School in 1976, she wasn’t inclined to “go where everyone else was going,” and decided to start her undergraduate career at Middlebury College in Vermont.

But when many of her fellow juniors headed off for a year abroad, she opted instead to travel to the distant land of Colorado and try out CU Boulder.

“I wanted to try a large school in the mountain West,” she says. “I wasn’t on campus more than two weeks when I said, ‘This is good; I’m staying.’ … It was such a great pleasure walking that sidewalk, seeing old people and young people, dark-skinned and light-skinned. You’d look people in the eye and they’d smile. I thought, ‘Oh, this is a happy place.’”

At CU Boulder, she was inspired by the late Geology Professor Bill Braddock and got her first taste of field work in the foothills and mountains west of Boulder.

“We’d have two or three lab periods a week and we’d be out crawling around the Front Range a 15-minute drive north of town,” she says. “That was a real strength of CU.”

She worked in Wyoming oilfields for a year while boning up for the GRE, then went to MIT, where her research took her not only to Nepal, but also Pakistan. After earning her PhD, she accepted a postdoctoral position at ETH Zurich (known as the “MIT of Switzerland”) doing fieldwork in the French Alps. She later joined the faculty at the University of Maine, and in 2015 accepted her position in Bozeman.

Hubbard is now poised to return to the Himalayas, pending relaxation on travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic: She has been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct further coring research in 2021 and 2022 with teams from Montana State and Maine.

“We were only just scraping the surface of what could be done to really understand the retreat of glaciers,” she says.