Directors Letter October 2019

Tracking Snowflakes

Dr. Rosemary Carroll is following the lifecycle of a snowflake.  We can’t use a slow motion camera to watch a snowflake as it falls onto Schofield Pass in deep winter, and then trace it underground before it eventually makes its way back into the East River and through a fish.  But Rosemary uses isotopes, different versions of the same chemicals that have slightly different weights, to estimate how long water travels below ground.  A Crested Butte resident, who is also a scientist with the Desert Research Institute, Rosemary is part of a much larger team, the Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area, working at RMBL to understand water.

Water matters, particularly in the west.  A study by Arizona State’s W.P. School of Business estimated that water from the Colorado River is tied to 16 million jobs and has an annual economic value of hundreds of billions of dollars, equivalent to three times that generated by Walmart’s total US retail sales. Science-driven improvements in our ability to predict and manage water quality and quantity add economic value.

The goal of the Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area is to understand how changes in the mountains such as floods, drought, and a changing snowmelt, affect water quality and water quantity all the way to the oceans.  The effort is organized by Dr. Ken Williams through the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  Dating back to lessons learned from the development of the atomic bomb about how to make scientific progress, the DOE focuses on collaborative projects that require teams of scientists to solve.  They bring the latest in technology and computing techniques to understand water, from high-throughput genomics, to airplanes carrying hyperspectral cameras, to dyes to track the connectivity between subsurface and surface water, to the high-speed computing needed to analyze and model the data.

This project creates a synergy with traditional RMBL research.  We have long hosted ecologists and evolutionary biologists, primarily funded through the National Science Foundation, a federal agency committed to driving fundamental scientific discoveries.  Now, we are attracting scientists from a broad range of federal agencies.

Reaching more scientists makes everybody’s work better!  From a logistical perspective, the water project takes advantage of RMBL’s laboratory space and access to research sites.  It builds upon long-time RMBL science, including the warming experiment, ongoing measurements of carbon fluxes, and billy barr’s long-time snow, water, and avalanche measurements.  The water project adds value to more traditional projects by generating data for long-term scientists as well as making RMBL more cost effective to operate.

Long a hotbed of summer activity, local observers may notice that Gothic now bustles outside summer.  This fall we are opening a new 7 bedroom, year-round cabin, Crystal.  In addition to hosting winter science, we will be hosting winter college courses as well as avalanche courses for those wishing to learn how to navigate the backcountry safety.  While we never reach the fever pitch of July in terms of sheer volume, we are now scientifically active year-round.  When better to track a snowflake than winter?

What is next in tracking snowflakes?  This winter we will host overflights to measure snow depth as part of NASA’s SnowEx Campaign.  Dr. Jeff Deems, with the National Science and Ice Data Center, gave a talk showing preliminary data from the East River Valley from previous overflights.  While you couldn’t zoom in to individual snowflakes, you could see snow accumulation even in small run out zones.  Scientists will dig simultaneous snow pits as part of understanding how new technology can be deployed to improve water predictions.

Knowledge, like snow, is starting to pile up in Gothic during winter!  It is all part of building a foundation of understanding to drive scientific discovery and inform management of ecosystems around the world.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL