Director’s Letter October 2021
Low Tide in Gothic
Water. Aspen. People. To steal a metaphor from author Barbara Kingsolver, fall brings low tide to Gothic. But unlike oceanside tidal pools, our ebbs and flows come from the sun, not the moon.
Our highwater point? One summer a health inspector expressed concern about an outlet valve on our old water treatment plant not being a full foot above ground level. Just below Judd Falls, at almost 10,000 feet in elevation, he was worried about a flood filling the valley, backflowing into the treatment plant and spoiling our drinking water. Did he know something I did not? Perhaps it was time to develop emergency plans for two pollination biologists, two stream ecologists, and two behavioral ecologists. This was an adventure that our wayward marmot, Fork Kardashian (click here for CNN video) might be eager to sign on to.
On a more serious note, after the tail end of summer but before snow has started accumulating except on the highest peaks, our snowpack is at an ebb. Skiers, ranchers, and residents alike, we are all holding our breath for the jet stream flows that will recharge our snowpack and hopefully lift us out of a historic drought.
We owe the brilliant reds and oranges of the fall aspen to chemical ebbs and flows. Chlorophyll is a costly molecule that trees use to capture energy from sunlight, absorbing energy from across the spectrum, reflecting green light. With the onset of fall, the economics of producing chlorophyll to capture energy changes; chlorophyll ebbs out of the leaves, revealing molecules such as xanthophylls and cartenoids that reflect different colors. Why are some aspen red? For reasons no one seems to know, some aspen have sugary leaves rich in anthocyanins.
Our human ebb is around Thanksgiving. Hunting is over and snow closes the road to vehicular traffic. Nordic skiing starts picking up into December as the snowpack improves. Students and scientists trickle back and forth all winter, but with early April and the emergence of marmots, plants, and pollinators, the numbers pick up, leading to a tidal wave of arrivals by mid-June.
While the sun drives the annual ebb and flow of people, our undergraduate program generates much of RMBL’s energy. Many RMBL scientists, including myself, our Science Director Dr. Jennifer Reithel, Undergraduate Research Coordinator Dr. Rosemary Smith, and Curator of Natural History Collections Dr. Rick Williams, all started through RMBL undergraduate programs.
This month we profile Brittney Cleveland (click here for profile), a participant in our undergraduate research program. We have been fortunate she has joined us for two summers, developing an interest in aquatic ecology after starting in marine biology. While only time will tell whether she will become a semi-permanent fixture of our annual cycle, I do know that she, like all our alumni, will carry her time in Gothic with her. While most alumni do not return to Gothic, they do flow around the world into a wide array of careers, not just research-focused academic positions, but teaching, management, and business. And having talked with numerous returning alumni, some who have been absent for decades, I know Gothic exerts a gravitational force that pulls on most everybody, across time and space!
Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL