Science Story November 2023

The science of giving

There is something about spending time in nature that ignites an appreciation for science. Char Carbone and Pete Rowland each carved an independent path from nature lover to science supporter. As a married couple, however, their journeys have both converged and become wider.

Pete had a place on the mountain near Crested Butte and knew about RMBL only in passing. He bought the home for the purpose of diving into fly fishing. Spending many days on the East River put him close enough to RMBL to pique his curiosity.

Char had been coming to Crested Butte for 20 years to explore the mountainous terrain in off-road adventures that frequently took her past Gothic. When the couple met and married, they found a home in Crested Butte, and their mutual curiosity about Gothic grew into a passion for funding environmental science.

An avid fly fisherman, Pete was already immersed in a charity that enables fishing enthusiasts to angle for a humanitarian cause. Known as the Fly Fishing Collaborative, its mission is to mobilize the fly fishing community to create sustainable solutions to poverty and human trafficking. One of the group’s strategies is to organize fly fishing trips that raise funds to build aquaponic farms in impoverished communities around the world.

Pete was looking for a place to host a fly fishing trip, and he contacted Elizabeth Hughes, long-time RMBL board member, who agreed to hold the fundraiser on the family ranch. Soon after the trip, Pete and Char were invited to a barbeque at the ranch for friends and supporters of RMBL.

At the event, Char had the serendipitous fortune of sitting next to David Inouye, who gave her a brief history of the lab and its multi-generational impact on science. She was enthralled and remembers telling Elizabeth, “I want to join right now!”

Meanwhile, Pete started his own research about RMBL’s near 100-year history and the work it does to help the world adapt to a changing climate. He says that he was blown away by what he learned.

The couple decided to become ongoing RMBL supporters and to help recruit others. They spend roughly half the year at their home in Denver and the other half at Crested Butte — or did until Char was in a car accident a year and a half ago and underwent spine surgery. She’s recovering slowly but was still able to visit in September.

Since first committing to become sustaining donors, Pete and Char’s admiration for RMBL has only deepened. Char is inspired that the lab’s investment in undergraduates and young scientists will continue building interest in and support for the science that takes place in Gothic.

From Pete’s perspective, as more people accept the reality of climate change, RMBL’s work will become more important to our world’s environmental crisis.

The couple also finds it meaningful that their support is a gift to the community they love. Donating to a globally influential institution that lives in your home town engenders a special kind of pride. But both Pete and Char insist that whether you’re a citizen of Crested Butte or not, the act of supporting RMBL will enrich your life.

What’s more, it allows you to become part of something that will outlive you, says Pete. “Your support is going to be important long after you’re gone,” he says.

Talk about leaving the world a better place.


Char Carbone Rowland is a Colorado native. For many years, she ran her interior design business in Denver four days a week and then headed to the mountains to explore the mountain passes in the Gunnison Valley and around her home in Buena Vista. Today she is retired and eager to get back to the mountains and RMBL after she recovers from back surgery.


Pete Rowland is a native South Texan. He came to Crested Butte for a visit shortly after retiring from the University of Kansas and started house hunting the next day. He and Char were married by Tim Clark in the historic UCC church. Today, he spends as much time as he can fly fishing and exploring the feeder streams in the Gunnison Valley.

Science Story October 2023

Dr. Rebecca Irwin is a bee researcher. And tagger. And curator. She’s also, as of 2009, a collaborator in Dr. David Inouye’s Phenology Project.

The 50-year study of the phenology of RMBL wildflowers Dr. Inouye founded has blossomed into a multifaceted exploration of flowers and their pollinators, particularly bees. While Drs. Brian Inouye and Nora Underwood now lead the team of wildflower phenology researchers, Dr. Irwin heads a group of scientists who study the phenology, diversity, and abundance of native bees around RMBL.

The Phenology Project’s overarching goal is to discover how climate change is affecting the phenology (timing of life events) of flowering plants and their pollinators. The project continues to grow in all directions. In addition to counting the flowers of more than 150 species in nine original plots plus over 12 added since 1974, the project is digging into root phenology and soil processes with research led by Dr. Aimee Classen.

Then there’s the equally long-lived dataset of billy barr’s observations of snow arrival, snowmelt, animal emergence from hibernation, temperature, and other climate measurements against which researchers can compare their data to see what trends are developing as the climate changes.

Dr. Irwin has been studying how climate warming and variation are affecting bees since 2009. After so many years she says that the flowers and bees seem like good old friends. One of the things she’s hoping to learn is how climate variation is shifting flower phenology relative to that of bees. She also wants to understand the effects of climate change on the bees’ abundance and success.

Before Dr. Irwin joined the Phenology Project as the keeper of bee data, she had been looking into pollination from the plant’s perspective, understanding how herbivores and pollinators affected plant reproduction and natural selection on flowers. But she first came to RMBL as an undergraduate student working with Dr. Kristina Jones who was studying the effects of pollinators on the natural selection of snapdragon flowers. That’s when she met Jennie Reithel, a fellow undergraduate at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont.

At the time, Dr. Irwin was on an academic track to veterinary school. Once she got to RMBL, she said, “Oh my gosh, I could have a career doing this! This is way more fun!” She switched gears, steering herself towards ecology. She continued going to RMBL, doing graduate work with Dr. Alison Brody, studying the effects of nectar-robbing bees on floral traits.

Although her post-doctoral work was at the University of California-Davis, she continued spending summers at RMBL and kept returning after getting her first faculty position.

Since Dr. Inouye approached her about starting a dataset with bees mirroring his research on flowers, she has discovered more than 150 species of solitary bees ranging from Almont to the Mexican Cut Nature Preserve, along with a series of bumble bees. Every two weeks, her team samples bees at 16 sites across an elevation gradient stretching from sage brush to subalpine.

Irwin and her team catch smaller bees with bee bowls painted in fluorescent, bee-attracting colors and filled with soapy water. Larger bees, like bumble bees, are caught with a net, marked, and released. The bee-bowl captured bees are identified under a microscope, and the curated collection resides at North Carolina State University, where Dr. Irwin is Professor of Applied Ecology.

One of her team’s research goals is to understand how climate warming is affecting the time when solitary bees emerge compared to when flowers do. So far, it appears that increased temperature and early snowmelt trigger bees to emerge earlier. However, comparison of bee emergence to Inouye’s long-term flowering data suggests that bee phenology is less sensitive to climate variation than flowering phenology. This implies that climate warming has the potential to disrupt interactions between bees and their flowers.

The long-term study also looks at bumble bee abundance and asks whether climate variation affects bee abundance directly, say with changes in temperature or precipitation, or whether it’s indirect, caused by changes in flowers.

As it turns out, bumble bee abundance seems to be driven by changes in flowers, especially by very low flower abundance at the beginning of the season. That’s when bumble bees are setting up their nests. Bumble bees live in colonies, so the egg layers are queens. And during the process of laying and incubating eggs and tending to the larvae, these queens are single moms. There are no daughters around to help, so they’re working very hard to gather provisions. Early snowmelt followed by hot dry summers are very hard on larger social bees like bumble bees.

So far, Irwin and her team have found the ecosystem to be surprisingly resilient to the climate variation we have seen over the last decade. Bees may have one bad year but seem to come back the next. However, if hot, dry years continue getting hotter, what will happen to bees in the long term?

It begs the question: how can we help bees and their ecosystems adapt to a changing climate? Research and discovery at RMBL are invaluable for informing land management recommendations.

For example, on the front lines — at the level of home gardens — we can do a lot. Dr. Irwin is often asked by homeowners what they should plant to help bees and the environment.

She has a ready answer. Bump up the abundance of flowers especially early in the spring and early summer, when bees like bumble bees need all the help they can get.


Rebecca Irwin, PhD, received her bachelor of arts in biology from Middlebury College and her PhD in biology, with a concentration in ecology and evolution, from the University of Vermont. She is a professor in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University and Consortium Director of the USGS Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center. Her current research projects include how pollinators and pollination are responding to climate change and the management of bee parasites in natural and agricultural landscapes. She also has a long-standing interest in the exploitation of pollination mutualisms.

Science Story September 2023

I was pretty excited when Ian asked me to write a piece on the intersection of geology and biology for the RMBL newsletter. My scientific career in soil geomorphology places my research at that intersection and many of my friends and colleagues work in that intersection as well. As you can probably imagine, the boundaries between earth science and biology are somewhat arbitrary. Biology is the scientific study of life at all scales – from molecular biology of cells to evolution of populations and, in general, earth science investigates the abiotic components of the earth system (geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere) as well as the long history of those systems and what that history might tell us about the future. These two scientific branches intersect in interesting and important ways.

For example, the long history of Earth is told in part through investigation of sedimentary layers and the fossils they contain. Paleontology is an obvious intersection of geology and biology. But did you know that the evolution of Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere is also a story of scientific intersection? The rapid rise of photosynthesizing cyanobacteria about 2.5 billion years ago caused our atmosphere to change from oxygen-poor to oxygen-rich. Geologists identified this huge biological change in the geological record as a striking increase in iron oxides (rust) in soils as well as bands of iron oxide deposited in sea floor sediments.

As advances in technology are catching up with our increasing need to predict environmental change, teams of scientists at the intersection of biology and geology are working on ever larger and more integrated projects. Recently, two groups of scientists teamed up at RMBL to better understand how mountains provide water resources around the world. Collaborations between Dept of Energy (DOE) atmospheric scientists (the SAIL project) and scientists investigating watershed-scale biogeochemical dynamics (Berkeley Laboratory Watershed Function SFA) close the gaps in our understanding of how mountains make their own weather, how water is stored and moves through complicated mountain watersheds, and how that water interacts with rocks, soils, and organisms. Maybe most importantly, the results from that research show us how we can most accurately model all those interactions. As water resources change with changing climate, modeling different scenarios in these mountain environments will help humans manage this critical resource.

Of course, modern high-tech research makes headlines, but research at the intersection of biology and geology has long been a part of what RMBL does. One of the best-known examples from RMBL’s early years was conducted when Jean Langenheim and her geologist husband, Ralph Langenheim, collaborated at RMBL in the 1940s and 50s. In her dissertation research, Jean used geologic mapping techniques – quite innovative for a biologist at the time – to map vegetation. Using a geographic information system approach, she overlaid her vegetation maps on maps of geology and related features (e.g. aspect, slope, etc.) to document how geologic diversity has contributed to both a rich flora and the diverse vegetation patterns observed in the Gunnison River watershed. RMBL researchers still build from her work.

If you’ve joined me on a geology tour, you’ve heard my spiel about how local geodiversity explains why Crested Butte is the Wildflower Capital of Colorado. If you haven’t, please join me for a tour next year! And in the meantime, you can check out my book “Geology Underfoot on Colorado’s Western Slope” at Townie Books or the Crested Butte Museum. Happy trails!

Science Story August 2023

Brianna Guijosa is an undergraduate who has spent the last two summers at RMBL studying how decomposition adds nutrients to the soil. The decomposing subjects are mice, and the creatures converting them to soil nutrients are carrion beetles and flies.

While a student at East Los Angeles College, Brianna got a scholarship from the National Science Foundation program Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) to create her own research project at RMBL.

The serendipitous way that Brianna landed on mice and carrion beetles as subjects is amusing to her. She was reading a newspaper tacked onto one of RMBL’s outhouses, and a story caught her eye. It seems that human waste left by hikers and campers in the outdoors has become a real issue because it takes so long to decompose. A project focused on recycling sounded appealing. Working with human feces? Not so much.

That’s when she seized on the idea of studying how the decomposition of small mammals helps fortify the soil, and she enlisted insects that make a living recycling dead things.

Mentored by Dr. Rosemary Smith, Brianna set up an experiment to study the impact of carrion beetles on soil nutrition. Using dead mice as the food source, she set the beetles and other insects to work breaking down the carcasses. Then to measure the soil quality, she planted oats in the enriched soil, harvested them after about two weeks, and measured the root weight fraction, which is the comparison between the weight of the root and the plant.

Roots that have to work harder to find nutrients are larger and heavier, whereas roots that find plenty of nutrients are lighter and smaller. In other words, more nutrients equal lighter roots; sparce nutrients mean heavier ones.

Among the treatments Brianna tried was piercing a mouse carcass to release nutrient-rich body fluids into the soil, simulating what would occur with a body ravaged by beetles. Out of all the soil treatments, Brianna found that the soil affected by the black carrion beetles and flies was the most nutritious.

Brianna herself caught the science bug at a young age. Growing up in Elk Grove, California, near Sacramento, she had easy access to wetlands, wildlife preserves, riparian habitats, mountains, and other natural wonders. Her affection for wildlife stayed with her when the family moved to Los Angeles.

At East Los Angeles College, a stroke of luck put her in a biology class taught by Dr. Jimmy Lee, who has served as RMBL’s undergraduate education program coordinator for many years. Dr. Lee has inspired many students to take advantage of the REU program and earn a spot at RMBL conducting authentic scientific research. In the fall, Brianna will continue her pursuit of science at Cal Poly Humboldt in Arcata, CA.

Brianna’s singular project was a source of pride. “It was cool that I was the only person doing a project like this at RMBL,” she said. At the same time, she was grateful to be welcomed into this supportive environment. Without the help of Dr. Smith, she said that she couldn’t have done the project. Staff members from administration to maintenance were helpful, too. Thanks to the REU grant and RMBL hospitality, she felt fortunate that even as a community college student, she was included in the science community.

She could interact equally with people from similar backgrounds and those from ivy league schools. As far as the scientists, she said “It was awfully nice to have access to all the wisdom.”

Beyond its scientific impact, RMBL teaches students that mixing with people from different backgrounds can introduce you to new outlooks, not only on science but also on life. After all, as humans we are in one sense all the same, but in another sense completely different, each of us molded by our unique circumstances.

And luckily, it’s the differences that yield discoveries.


Brianna Guijosa is a recipient of the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates scholarship and a student entering California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt. She plans to earn her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology with a Wildlife, Wildlife Ecology, Conservation, and Management concentration, and she hopes to eventually work for the National Park Service. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.

Science Story July 2023

Imagine that you’ve grown up a city kid in a concrete jungle. But at some point, a science class suddenly whets your appetite for aquatic biology, and the intellectual craving follows you to college. How do you find the path that leads to a career? If you have an educator like Dr. Susan Washko, you’re in luck.

Dr. Washko has a special interest in helping students whose backgrounds or inexperience with water — like the inability to swim — create barriers to studying aquatic ecology. Any field science can be hazardous, but working around water is especially tricky. Some folks don’t know how to gage the depth or speed of water, or they have no experience with boats. This is why Dr. Washko is participating in the River Field Studies Network, a National Science Foundation-funded project that trains college instructors to teach science students how to safely research water.

Dr. Washko herself grew up in the Cleveland area, near the Cuyahoga River. She’s been fascinated with water since childhood. Her high school ecology class worked with stream engineering consultants to restore an artificially straightened stream so it could support more biodiversity. Working on this project inspired her to pursue studies in environmental science and ecology in college.

As an environmental science major at Allegheny College, she met Dr. Scott Wissinger. He was teaching aquatic ecology and needed a research assistant to spend the summer at RMBL, where his three-decades-long research projects lived. So from 2014 to 2016, she spent her summers at RMBL studying caddisflies and learning to be a scientist. It was a pivotal point in her career. Now she’s a new instructor at Western Colorado University creating the same kind of undergraduate research experiences for her students.

She’s been the undergraduate program coordinator at RMBL for the last two summers. This summer, she has mentored an undergraduate in the program, and in the fall she’ll supervise two students working on master’s degrees.

The undergraduate student Dr. Washko mentors is looking at how beaver ponds of different ages may have different invertebrate species. This can help us understand how beaver ponds change over time and how they can be used to restore streams, wetlands, and the invertebrate communities living there.

Dr. Washko first started studying beavers and how they influence invertebrates when she was getting her master’s degree at Utah State University.

Beavers actually have much to teach humans about wilderness restoration. After being hunted nearly to extinction thanks to European colonization, beavers have been slowly repopulating the streams and rivers of the U.S. We need to learn how to coexist with them and how to use their engineering experience to restore streams.

Even ranchers are starting to work with beavers because they increase riparian vegetation and inundation, which benefit domestic animals. These green corridors allow riparian species to thrive and create places of refuge for animals escaping wildfires.

For Dr. Washko, water-based animals infinitely smaller than beavers are just as intriguing. She has spent time at RMBL and other places studying how species like soldier fly larvae, Stratiomyidae, thrive in pools that dry up. It turns out that they simply become dormant and wait for the water to return. Then there are fairy shrimp, whose eggs can lie dormant in dry sediment patiently waiting 100 years or more for water.

Doing research at RMBL under the guidance of Dr. Wissinger gave Dr. Washko the confidence to see herself as a scientist. Now she hopes to instill the same level of confidence in her students. Meanwhile, her thirst for understanding water remains as intense as always. “There are all these little creatures living under the surface, and most people never know they’re there,” she says.


Susan Washko is an instructor at Western Colorado University and the Undergraduate Program Coordinator and Diversity Liaison at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. She earned her PhD in Fisheries Conservation & Management at the University of Arizona, where the subject of her dissertation was combining ecological passions: Aquatic invertebrates in Sonoran Desert rock pools and inclusive undergraduate field experiences.

Science Story June 2023

We all know it’s important to see the big picture. Dr. Ian Breckheimer can confidently say that he does. But he also doesn’t miss the details. With his spatial data platform, he and fellow scientists are building a digital twin of the Gunnison Basin, a highly detailed model of the watershed and its climate and ecosystem. Think of it as a high-tech layered atlas.

It includes the height and identification of trees, from aspens to conifers. It shows the elevation of the hills and dales. And now, the platform has recently added long-term data on climate and snow, including the onset and departure dates of snow for the last 30 years, as well as how snow patterns have varied from year to year.

The data set lives on RMBL’s website. There’s a data catalog with a list of data products and services ranging from data curation and archiving to drone imagery processing and data analysis consulting. Scientists can extract the precise data they need for their field sites.

Collecting field data alone is important. Overlaying information on climate, snow, vegetation, and environmental trends adds a whole new dimension. To researchers, the spatial data platform is a big boon.

Dr. Breckheimer says that at least a half dozen projects are already using the data. Researchers are looking at male and female bee populations, which change depending on the climate. The data also help scientists study marmots, plant phenology, and other living subjects.

What’s more, the data can now tell RMBL researchers when they can get to their sites. That’s because this year, Dr. Breckheimer’s team is using the data to forecast the timing of snowmelt. Combining the long-term record of snow from satellite, airplane, and drone imagery with data from SNOTEL (snow telemetry) stations, which measure snowpack in real time, the team can provide a solid estimate of when field sites will be snow-free. Like farmers, field researchers are dependent on the whims of Mother Nature. So the forecasting feature has become a big hit.

Recreation trail users are no less enthusiastic about it.

Dr. Breckheimer’s own research centers on how plants and pollinators use the landscape. He’s reconstructing landscape patterns of flowering across the basin. To do this requires knowing where the flowers are. But because plants are sensitive to climate, you also need to know how the climate varies across the basin. As it turns out, it varies a lot.

While developing the spatial data platform, Dr. Breckheimer was surprised to find that the Gunnison Basin has so many different micro-climates. “There’s nearly as much climate variation in the Gunnison Basin as there is in the entire southern Rockies. That’s a huge amount of climate variability in such a relatively small area,” he says. It’s one of the reasons RMBL is a great place to research the influence of climate on ecosystems.

Another surprising finding to emerge from the project is the variety of snowfall and snowmelt trends at different elevations. From billy barr’s decades-long snow records, we know that spring is arriving slightly earlier at Gothic than in years past. But at lower elevations, earlier snowmelt trends are much stronger. Climate warming isn’t consistent across the basin. Some areas are warming faster than others.

Meanwhile, the domain of the spatial data platform continues to grow. The team has begun making detailed maps of the Taylor River Basin, which is drawing interest from researchers for many reasons, among them its dryer climate and substantially different types of forests.

As the spatial data mapping continues to expand to broader areas, Dr. Breckheimer believes that his research will go beyond a strictly scientific endeavor to one that directly affects those living in the West. “It will provide concrete value to those charged with keeping our public lands healthy,” he says.

Ian Breckheimer is a landscape ecologist and research scientist in spatial ecology and data synthesis at RMBL. Originally from Saluda, North Carolina, Ian and his wife Lizza moved to the Gunnison Valley from Cambridge, Massachusetts, after completing his NSF postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. Ian’s research focuses on how landscapes, and the plants and people that live there, are adapting to global change. Much of his work links field measurements of ecological processes (such as plant growth and flowering) to their landscape context via imagery collected by drones, airplanes, and satellites.

Science Story May 2023

Many of us humans complain about the disruption of daylight saving time, yet somehow we adapt. Imagine the clock shifting enough to throw whole seasons off by weeks or more. If all the species in nature set their clocks to synchronize with the new schedule, it might not be a problem. But they don’t. Seasons are clearly shifting. However, “Species are not responding identically,” says Dr. David Inouye in a recent National Geographic article featuring his 50-year phenology study at RMBL.

When Dr. Inouye and other RMBL participants started the phenology research (the study of life cycle events) in the early 1970s, climate change was not on the radar, even in the scientific community. Over half a century later, his work continues to garner more attention and publicity both in scientific and layman circles. In the context of climate change, it has become recognized by a broad audience as critically important.

Climate change itself has steadily become more evident to the general public, says Dr. Inouye. Anyone who’s spending time outdoors — gardeners, anglers, recreationists — can see that nature is changing. Thanks to Dr. Inouye’s over 50-year data set, the changes regular people can’t miss are backed up by science.

The length of the phenology study, along with the detailed data collected, has much to do with its significance. Even Dr. Inouye says that when he started the project, he didn’t realize that it would take decades to reach some of the discoveries he’s made. You need 30 years of data before you can find patterns that involve 15-year cycles or other infrequent events. Having 53 years of research yields insights that you can’t get any other way.

The work also stands out because long-term phenology studies are not a staple of every field station. Most National Science Foundation grants are typically for two to three years. Dr. Inouye’s work, however, has received such positive reception in the scientific community that the NSF has been willing to make 10-year grants to sustain it. The project is now in its third decade of NSF funding. Absent such generous support, researchers are forced to get creative. In fact, for the first 30 years of the phenology study, Dr. Inouye conducted the research without funding, essentially working it into his schedule alongside his funded research.

His commitment to the study’s continuation has only increased with over half a century of experience. He has recently started an endowment that will help ensure that the work continues regardless of outside grants. The endowment is primarily aimed at keeping the flowering phenology project thriving, but if enough funds are available, there could be support for other research such as a 15-year ground squirrel study, marmot research, or the 16-year bee survey started by Dr. Becky Irwin in collaboration with the phenology project.

While long-term research studies are rarer in the U.S., they can be a matter of course in other parts of the globe. The annual appearance of the famous cherry blossoms in Kyoto, Japan, have been recorded for 12 centuries, according to a March 2021 report in Reuters, and could well represent the world’s longest studied subject of flowering phenology. March 2021 marked the earliest blooming of cherry blossoms in 1,200 years. It would be hard to find a more vivid case for climate change.

Few know the value of long-term phenology research better than Dr. Inouye. But the world is catching up. As the recognition of his work has increased, he has been contacted by other scientists, interviewed for other publications, asked to speak at public talks throughout Colorado, and invited to speak at scientific meetings, like the one he‘ll address at Penn State in June. A couple of years ago, a college classmate came for a visit, and Dr. Inouye took him to Gothic. His non-scientist friend was so impressed with the phenology work that he has contributed to Dr. Inouye’s endowment two years in a row.

Contributions are always welcome. After all, what price can be put on the contributions Dr. Inouye has made to science and the world?


David Inouye is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Principal Investigator at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. He first came to Gothic in 1971 to take courses, returned in 1972 as a graduate student, and has done research at RMBL since then. He and his wife Bonnie overwinter near Paonia. He volunteers on the Boards of the Endangered Species Coalition, North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, and Citizens for a Healthy Community. He also participates in the USDA-funded effort to establish a national monitoring program for native bees, and a new Colorado project for assessing bee biodiversity.

Science Story April 2023

Brett Biebuyck grew up exploring Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the lush landmass flanked by three of the Great Lakes and filled with dense forests, diverse wildlife, and spectacular waterfalls, among other natural wonders. From a young age he became hardwired with wilderness wanderlust. Not surprisingly, after graduating from high school, he went straight to Alaska, where he earned his degree in history and northern studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Beckoned by an even more remote wilderness, Brett found himself in the Arctic supporting researchers at the Toolik Field Station operated by the University’s Institute of Arctic Biology. Being there not only taught Brett about how field stations worked but also aroused his curiosity about their origins and history. The more he researched field stations, the more he heard about a unique one in the Rockies called RMBL.

Brett was attracted to RMBL for several reasons. He was intrigued by its independence and the flexibility afforded by the absence of control by an academic institution. The remote nature of RMBL appealed to him as well, and the temperate climate was a plus. Gunnison Valley is blessed with four seasons and an abundance of sunshine. In the Arctic, the sun sets in November and doesn’t rise again until late January. At the time Brett was looking into other field stations, he had a family to consider. In this capacity, RMBL has always been a welcoming environment for families, both seasonally and culturally.

So it is that in 2020, Brett became RMBL’s Director of Administration. While this is his title, in practical terms he functions as a guru of operations. He and his team oversee the nuts and bolts of housing, food service, and the health and safety of RMBL researchers, whose number swells to 180 in the peak summer season. His team coordinates housing assignments and logistics, meets the needs of a diverse collection of scientists, and facilitates the processes that keep the community connected. Over the winter, they designed a new online portal for researchers and staff.

In addition to the geographical attraction of Gothic, RMBL has a compelling history that Brett is keen to explore. While he was working in the Arctic, he recalls being fascinated with the stories of Alaska Natives. At RMBL, between the silver miners of the 1800s and the Ute people who have occupied the land for centuries, he has plenty of historical ground to cover.

We hope that Brett is as eager to share his historical discoveries as he is to make them.


Brett Biebuyck, Director of Administration for RMBL, has been drawn to the natural world and remote areas since his childhood spent in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. At 18, he went to Alaska for college and adventure. For 17 years, he supported research and education at Toolik Field Station in Arctic Alaska, becoming the Associate Director of Operations and Finance. In 2020, Brett, his wife Leah, and two sons, Sam (9) and Teddy (6), moved to Crested Butte. They enjoy spending their time participating in youth hockey, riding bikes, and camping.

Science Story March 2023

When we last talked with Dr. Jessica Lundquist of the University of Washington (Spring 2022 Newsletter), her team was setting up all the instruments needed to measure snow sublimation, the transformation of the snowpack (a solid) into vapor. Last October, the team installed the instruments at RMBL. Then winter came and generously dropped all the snow the researchers could want and then some. Now, with the avalanche of data the team has gathered, it’s likely that scientists will know more about what happens to fallen snow than ever before.

Who needs this information? Only the 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River for drinking water, among other things. The mountain snowpack is by far the largest source of water for the river. We already know that snowfall in the mountains has diminished over the past decade. Yet the river’s water has decreased much more in proportion. How much water are we losing to sublimation? That’s the urgent question researchers want to answer in the Sublimation of Snow project, aptly shortened to SoS.

Dr. Lundquist’s team set up an extraordinary array of instruments at the Kettle Ponds, a particularly windy location. Where there’s dry air and wind, more snow vaporizes. Fresh snowfall makes a difference, too. New snow is light and fluffy, easily picked up by the wind and blown around. It also bounces along the surface, and lots of snow bouncing around equals a lot of snow vaporizing. If there isn’t new snow, the wind doesn’t pick up snow particles because they stick together.

Blowing snow is actually very important to measure. It’s also very hard to do, not just because it’s a moving target but because you have to observe the snow from every angle. Hence the plethora of sensors. There are four towers at the Kettle Ponds site, ranging from 10 to 20 meters tall, all taking meteorological measurements. There are snow pillows. Like giant bathroom scales, they measure the weight of the snow, which tells researchers how much water it holds. There are more than 20 anemometers, or eddy covariance sensors, measuring turbulence in the air. There are also various laser sensors, including LiDAR, that map not only the depth of the snowpack but also the location of snowflakes and the speed at which they’re dancing through the air.

Although plenty of other studies have been done on snow sublimation, Dr. Lundquist believes that her team may be the first to scientifically analyze everything that’s happening to the snow in one area. This matters because regardless of how much we improve our measurement of snow, “if we’re not measuring sublimation, we’re missing a potentially big part of the equation,” she says, “and that causes our conclusions to be wrong.”

Without accounting for snow sublimation, we can’t accurately predict how much of the snow that fell will end up in the Colorado River and ultimately in people’s homes in seven states.

Understanding snow sublimation is a highly complex science, and few understand this as well as Dr. Lundquist. Fortunately, with the efforts of scientists like her and more broad-based research, the snow’s secrets will not stay buried for long.

Jessica Lundquist, PhD, grew up in California and spent summers hiking in the Sierra Nevada. She received her PhD in Oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at U.C. San Diego. She was a CIRES postdoctoral fellow with the University of Colorado, Boulder and NOAA. She is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on spatial patterns of snow and weather in the mountains and how those patterns are likely to affect streamflow and water resources in a changing climate.

Science Story February 2023

The life cycle of a research project begins with a question, something a scientist wants to know about the world. How do hummingbirds court? How do flower colors evolve? How are bumblebee populations changing? What are the tipping points in an ecosystem’s responses to climate change? And on and on.


Permission granted

The next question becomes: where do I do research? RMBL may come to mind. Many

scientists find out about this unusual field station in the Rockies by word of mouth. Or they’ve seen papers by RMBL researchers in scientific journals. So they reach out, draft a proposal, and submit a New Research Application to RMBL.

At RMBL, a Research Committee of peer scientists assesses the proposal, asking their own questions. Will the project be meaningful science? Is it feasible? Will it impact the environment? Will it hinder future research? All important considerations. It’s doubtful that a proposal for a mountainside forest clear-cut study or the permanent manipulation of a river will be approved. RMBL is here to facilitate future scientists as well as current ones.

After the assessment, the Research Committee recommends that RMBL staff approve, approve with conditions, or deny the application. An approved research plan is the scientist’s ticket to RMBL. Then the journey begins.


First impressions

A scientist coming to RMBL for the first time is easily stunned by the beauty of the setting. The fields are covered in wildflowers. The atmosphere is sprinkled with birds, bees, and butterflies. Ground squirrels and marmots scurry about, foraging for the family’s provisions. At the heart of it all sits the picturesque remnants of an old mining townsite at the base of Mt. Gothic. But despite being once abandoned, the site is buzzing with scientists at the peak of activity. It is summer, after all, because if you’re studying living things when they are most active, you only have a few warm months to do it.


Research groundwork

Scientists are eager to dive into their research, so the first thing they do is meet with RMBL Science Director Dr. Jennie Reithel. She and her team of RMBL staff solve the logistical problems scientists face to make their projects happen. Establishing new research sites is one of the first things to be done. The site has to meet researchers’ scientific criteria, such as south-facing meadows with certain plants or solitary bee habitats in sandy soils. Yet the site cannot step on the toes, or the sites, of existing researchers. It’s helpful if it’s easy to access. Finding the perfect site is no walk in the woods. Once scientists find sites that work for the research, they coordinate with RMBL staff to request permission and/or do the permitting that legally allows them to work at a site. At most field stations, scientists must do this on their own. At RMBL, they have a leg up.

Approximately seventy percent of RMBL scientists have research sites on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Fortunately, RMBL has a permit to conduct research on millions of acres of USFS land across three USFS Districts. RMBL also works with local ranchers, towns, land trusts, and other private landowners to request permission to conduct research on their private property. What’s more, RMBL offers scientists modern facilities and research equipment, housing, and meals on the campus. With more than 100 ongoing research projects and 4,000 research sites in the Gunnison Basin, the fact that RMBL handles the permitting for most scientists is a huge advantage to getting their projects off the ground. In effect, RMBL acts as a concierge service to help scientists do science.


Good neighbors

Most of the research at RMBL is unseen by the local Crested Butte and Gunnison communities. But occasionally, it is highly visible. For example, a tethered balloon may fly over Gothic to collect atmospheric data, drones fly over sites to collect plant data, and scientists may temporarily turn the river red with nontoxic dye to gather hydrology data. When this happens, RMBL gives residents as much information as possible to avoid causing alarm.

In addition to keeping the lines of communication open with local residents, RMBL gives back to the community with such offerings as K-12 summer science camps, hands-on science projects with public schools, adult wildflower tours, distinguished lectures, breeding bird surveys, and summer seminars.


Amenities in abundance

Once a scientist’s project is up and running, they can help themselves to RMBL’s cornucopia of resources, from long-term data sets and the area’s natural history to the vast community of research colleagues, new contacts, and potential collaborators.

When a scientist’s curiosity brings them to RMBL, whether their research lasts a season or a lifetime, they become part of the RMBL legacy, enriched by RMBL’s commitment to support scientists. Their research directly or indirectly leads to more research. And scientists continue coming to the place where they and their questions are welcomed.


Jennifer Reithel, PhD, first came to RMBL in 1993 as an undergraduate, working on bee behavior research with Dr. Kristina Jones. Since then, she’s been a winter caretaker, graduate student, and instructor at RMBL. She became the Science Director in 2007. She and her husband Ian and two boys, Cormac and Giles, enjoy spending summers at Gothic, climbing mountains, looking for bees and membracids, drinking coffee at the Coffee Lab, and socializing in the dining hall.