CU Boulder’s Mountain Research Station has a three-pronged mission—host some of the most influential and long-running ecological research in the world, give students a peerless education in mountain environments, and link the public to learning about important ecosystems.

In mid-May on CU Boulder’s main campus, it was sunny and mild, and trees and flowers were blooming. Head roughly 25 miles west to the university’s Mountain Research Station (MRS) and spring was slower to arrive. At 9,500 feet, the aspens were still bare and a winter-gray sky rumbled with thunder as a rain-sleet mix pelted a cover of ponderosa pines.

It’s critical to know what’s happening in mountains because they are the de facto 'water towers' of the world.

Jen Morse, climate, water and snow technician

As Scott Taylor, MRS director and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, stepped out of the John W. Marr Alpine Laboratory, he zipped up multiple layers to shield himself from the chill. This time of year is marked by action and anticipation, and some ‘spring cleaning’ of labs and cabins is underway in advance of researchers’ arrival the next day.

The MRS lies within the 190-acre Columbine Springs Reserve, owned by CU Boulder and surrounded by Roosevelt National Forest. Beyond the Marr Lab, Taylor points out other ‘base camp’ facilities. The MRS is a mix of historical and contemporary buildings that have hosted thousands of researchers and students over the past several decades. They include a large ‘wet’ lab and classroom, multiple cabins, a bathhouse, seminar facility and dining hall—and a small observatory.

Summer is ‘busy season’ at the MRS, said Taylor—he is currently working on permitting roughly 60 research projects planned for the coming months—but other important work runs year-round. For example, these are “peak snowpack” days at higher elevations, and a snow survey crew overnighted above the MRS—at the Tundra Lab at 10,000 feet—to have a 5 a.m. start. 

Researchers studying the snow pack at the Mountain Research StationJen Morse, a climate, water and snow technician and head of the annual snow survey, led that group of 20 graduate students and ‘citizen scientists’ gathering this year’s data. She explained that the unique data set of snow depth and density dates from 1997 and has been used by researchers to model snowpack and snowmelt since then. It’s critical to know what’s happening in mountains because they are the de facto “water towers” of the world, said Morse.

Across two days, Morse and the volunteers ski the area using probes and digging snow pits at 500 random points along the upper two basins of Green Lakes Valley (between 11,500 and nearly 13,000 feet), and record their findings. It’s a harsh but fragile setting within the City of Boulder watershed, said Morse, where decades of data can help build a picture of how human activities far from here are impacting these mountain systems.

Winter keeps its grip at that elevation—the snowpack can be 20 feet deep in some spots—and presents hazards the crew must navigate to gather the data. “We’ve had days when we couldn’t even leave the Tundra Lab because we had 80-mile-per hour winds and a whiteout,” said Morse, who has led the survey since 2011.

With visibility, avalanche and lightning hazards, she and the volunteers find the work exhausting but rewarding. “I think people enjoy the fact that they get to ski in the watershed and feel like they’re part of something with a more interesting purpose than just skiing,” said Morse. (The MRS also welcomes the public to learn about their ‘local’ alpine environment through a summer seminar series and three new interpretive trails—no backcountry skiing required.)

A century of studying mountains

The history of CU Boulder’s field station stretches back to 1908 when the university established a research and recreation camp for professors near Tolland. They moved the station to its current location in 1920 and began field courses a year later. Back then, fieldwork was focused on geology, geomorphology and even archaeology, but a major and lasting shift began in the 1950s.

Taylor explains that the Marr Lab—which includes a library, offices and plant, soil and chemistry labs—got its name from the CU Boulder biology professor and former MRS director who was instrumental in bringing the study of ecology to the Front Range. Marr’s work was also key to elevating the MRS’ reputation as a premier hub for meaningful research on the unique processes and shifting aspects of mountain ecosystems. (Taylor’s own lab currently studies the interactions between black-capped and mountain chickadees.)

A researcher studying creek water at the Mountain Research Station

During his tenure, Marr launched several long-term ecology projects and programs and founded what became the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), which still partners with the research station. Several of those long-term research projects continue today, including the Mountain Climate Program, which began in 1952 to examine the link between climate and major ecosystem types on the Front Range. Researchers maintain weather stations in four ecological zones spanning roughly 5,000 feet in altitude where they gather data year-round on weather, temperature, atmospheric carbon dioxide and more.

One of those stops is station “D-1” at 12,200 feet, which is the highest continuously operating, high-altitude climate station in North America. And “C-1” where researchers like Duane Kitzis, a senior research associate for CU Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), have been collecting air samples for decades.

On that cool May morning, Kitzis pulled up the hood of his jacket and left the Marr Lab “to finish my commute,” he said, above the MRS on Niwot Ridge. “I go no matter what.” Kitzis works with the Global Monitoring Division at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, which has been measuring atmospheric gases (including CO2 concentrations) on Niwot Ridge since 1967. Kitzis has been going up there twice weekly for 37 years, collecting samples that help establish the world’s greenhouse gas measurement standards (well-defined calibration scales are essential to any long-term measurement program). 

INSTAAR field technicians like Jen Morse take additional measurements throughout the year. “The samplers doing the work travel up above the treeline every week for us–weather that would scare most flatlanders,” said Kitzis. “They are the heroes like the ones all over the world collecting samples so we can quantify these increases.” That precise and continuous record is part of the NOAA’s Cooperative Air Sampling Network which includes sites in 36 countries. Those efforts have been key to documenting the relentless increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide–now 50 percent higher than pre-industrial levels. “Without unassailable measurement data, we could not prove anything beyond opinion,” said Kitzis. 

The MRS has long been at the frontier of research into the effects of changing climate, according to Bill Bowman, former MRS director (1991-2021) and professor emeritus in ecology and evolutionary biology. “Being able to tap into the long-term legacy of research that’s being collected up there has made the Mountain Research Station a gateway to a really rich mountain research heritage,” he said. Taylor added that long-term records underlie “the importance of the research station for understanding climate,” and that they give the MRS “global significance because that data can be used by a lot of different research groups to address questions about change.”

Over the years, Kitzis’ coworkers have included bears, moose, mountain lions, bobcats, elk and, of course, other atmospheric scientists. “In my career, I’ve spoken to many of the world's leading researchers in climate change. It really is something to see geologic shifts of this magnitude in one’s lifetime.” 

Niwot Ridge, a living laboratory

Much of the research related to the MRS takes place in the rugged landscape on nearby Niwot Ridge, a remarkably diverse 1,775-acre UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The ridge runs from the MRS all the way to the continental divide and Navajo Peak (13,409 feet), and within that area lies every type of alpine and montane ecosystem that exists in the southern Rocky Mountains.

For decades, researchers have studied the surrounding subalpine coniferous forests, alpine tundra, lakes and moraines, glaciers and glacial landforms, cirques, talus slopes and permafrost. Add dozens of species of flora and fauna and what you get is a spot like no other and a real scientific asset, said Taylor. “It’s like traveling 3,000 kilometers north but in just 45 minutes,” he said. “It’s a pretty incredible habitat transition. To be so close to white-tail ptarmigan, pika, snowshoe hare—species we think of as being in the far north—is very cool.”

Niwot Ridge

That diversity has made Niwot Ridge—which the MRS manages for the U.S. Forest Service through a special use agreement—a rare and important ‘living laboratory’. For decades, the MRS has been a well-known stepping-off point for researchers from around the world studying plant and animal ecology, biogeochemistry, hydrology, geomorphology, atmospheric science and more on Niwot Ridge. Researchers working there have long been committed to understanding how the ecological fabric of alpine environments is knitted together. And more recently, said Taylor, “Most of the research out there speaks to how mountains are going to respond to environmental change, and how are they already responding?”

In addition to attracting many internationally-recognized experts and research programs in mountain science, the MRS hosts an equally multi-disciplinary collection of undergraduate and graduate field courses in biology, geography and geology—and some newer courses in art and environment. That access to world-class research in a ‘classroom’ unlike any other is part of what makes the MRS so unique, said Taylor. “The MRS combines this really amazing research with education that exposes students to how we actually collect data and why long-term projects matter,” he said.  

One of those important projects is the Niwot Ridge Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program. It was established in 1980 with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) which continues to support its study of air, snow, water, soil, microbes, lakes, trees, flowers and animals. That research—like the snow survey and atmospheric monitoring that Morse, Katzis and others do—allows researchers to pinpoint when and how environmental changes lead to ecological shifts, to better predict the future of critical services that mountains provide, and to help conserve and manage alpine habitats in the decades ahead.

The Mountain Research Station is something that CU should be really proud of and celebrate. I just don’t think enough people know that it is there, and it is such a jewel.”

Nancy Emery, principal investigator at Niwot Ridge; associate professor, ecology and evolutionary biology

Niwot Ridge is one of the original sites in the NSF's LTER network, which now numbers 28 locations, providing open access to nearly 40 years of sustained observations from around the country. The four-square-mile site is the only one in Colorado and it’s focused on discovering the mechanisms driving ecological stability in mountain ecosystems, according to Nancy Emery, the principal investigator at Niwot Ridge and associate professor in ecology and evolutionary biology. “Over that time period, you start to see a lot of different things happen and develop a uniquely cohesive perspective on the system,” said Emery, whose expertise is plant evolution in stressful and extreme environments.

“A lot of what our project is focusing on now is when and why do things respond very quickly to climate change and why do some lag behind, and what does that mean for how the whole system holds together?” said Emery. That approach relates to how we think about climate change generally, she said, because researchers can see patterns in the unique ecosystem of Niwot Ridge and then test why they’re happening.

Some of the LTER’s major research projects, which involve dozens of faculty, staff, graduate students and undergraduates, look specifically at shifts in the abundance and distribution of certain ‘indicator’ species of plants and animals. Those include a 40-year forest study focused on the growth, mortality and recruitment of tree species and one on pika populations, the rabbit-like mammals that live at the edge of environmental extremes.

A researcher holding a chickadee

“Mountain systems are really important for water and biodiversity; there are a lot of species that live nowhere else, and they are the sentinels of climate change,” said Emery. In addition to plant and animal ecology and atmospheric science, Niwot Ridge researchers are also exploring topics related to hydrology, limnology (the study of lakes), microbial ecology and geomorphology.

In addition to the Niwot Ridge LTER, the MRS supports other major research programs including the NSF-funded National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a 30-year project to make available open-access climatological and ecological data from 81 U.S. sites, including one on Niwot Ridge, to better understand how ecosystems are shifting. Another NSF-supported program is the Boulder Creek Critical Zone Observatory, established in 2007 and focused on the important area where atmosphere, water, ecosystems and soil interact to shape the Earth’s surface.

The collaboration and support between the MRS and LTER have been invaluable to researchers and students for decades and continue to be, said Emery. “The Mountain Research Station is something that CU should be really proud of and celebrate. I just don’t think enough people know that it is there, and it is such a jewel,” she said. Both played a huge part in attracting her to CU Boulder. “It makes research much more accessible, teaching classes and taking classes up there so much easier,” said Emery. “It’s more than just your typical field trip–it’s a really exceptional experience.”

Forging new paths

Looking ahead, Taylor sees a lot of room for growth in supporting the pillars of learning and teaching at the MRS. He wants it to continue to be a place of exploration and explanation—and inspiration—while increasing accessibility, especially to groups historically underrepresented in scientific research and fieldwork.

While the MRS may be out of sight for many people on the main CU Boulder campus, Taylor doesn’t want it to be out of mind. He’s excited about sharing a place that plays a pivotal role in the past, present and future understanding of mountain ecology. “There’s a lot of potential to capitalize on with our history of outreach, education and research to inform a population that I think really cares about mountains and change,” he said.