Posts in: Organismal Biology & Ecology
On Monday Morning we made the four hour trek to Gothic, Colorado, a small town with a year round population of four just north of Crested Butte. Gothic was a small silver mining town founded in the 1880s, but rebranded itself with the establishment of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in 1928. While the population of Gothic soars to around 180 in the summer, mostly scientists, research assistants, and families, the town is very quiet in the winter. Part of the reason for this is the mandatory 3 mile hike in with your packs and food as the road is not plowed. This winter has been fairly mild and low to average on snowpack, but we still observed several avalanche slides and slide paths on the way. Last year, 100 year slides ran multiple times, taking out 300 year old trees, crossing over the road, and even hitting some cabins at the base of Gothic mountain.
Once at the lab site, we moved our packs into two cabins, Maroon and Crystal. The Crystal cabin was just completed this past year, and we are one of the first modern groups to stay in Gothic for a winter class and in that cabin! The cabins and site are absolutely stunning, with a 360 degree mountain view. We got lucky with a clear, warm hike in, and great night for stargazing and cards.
Tuesday was packed. We started the day off by meeting one of the caretakers and year-rounders. Rachel gave us an introduction to RMBL as well as her ongoing research on bee species in the area. The research occurring here is impressive in its scope ranging from abiotic to biotic factors and their intersection, as well as the length of time research has been occurring here. Much of this is helpful in examining climate change trends and consequences. We were able to create a snowshoe loop with possible places to explore for our own independent research endeavors this week. The loop was important to keep us on track so that we didn’t disturb other ongoing research projects and data collection. While the town seems totally quiet buried in snow, all the life that exists in this rich ecosystem is still alive through the winter, just in altered states. For the health of the site, its important to disturb as little as possible.
After lunch, we finally got the chance to meet with the man, the myth, the legend, billy barr himself. Yes, its lowercase, he just prefers it that way. If you didn’t watch the linked video from my previous blog, billy is another one of the population of four, and possibly what Gothic is most known for besides the lab. Billy has spent the last 46 years collecting and logging snow data. He lives fully off the grid in his cabin with his weather station right next door. Billy didn’t intend to spend the rest of his life in Gothic, nor did he intend for his data collection to lead to anything revolutionary. He simply moved here in a time without wifi or cellphones and figured he would keep a log of these natural functions. So much of our days are dictated by weather in the mountains, so he became interested in tracking it. Billy has tracked information on temperature, snow depth, and density the same way and in the same site. While snotel sites in the area are also now collecting this data, billy’s in the oldest and therefore has the most comparative value. He noted definite trends in the data such as more record breaking temperature highs in the last two decades. Meeting billy was much anticipated, and he did not disappoint with how welcoming, witty, and eager he was to show us his special part of the world. He gave us a tour of the cabin he built himself, powered by solar panels and outfitted with a greenhouse, home movie theater, and impressive tea collection. Linked below is the weather site in which data is reported to, as well as some more photos from the day.
We finished up our work for the day with a little fun in the snow. We bounced between shoveling snow into a mound to start building a quinzhee, or snow shelter. We quickly learned that the freezing over night/ development of a sun crust is integral to the soundness of the structure after it caved in during our premature moves to dig out the center. While working on the snow shelter that we hope to sleep 6-8 in one night, we also did a few snow pits. While they were dug on slopes of 0 degrees, we were still able to notice temperature gradients, different hardness layers in the snow, different snow crystal shapes, and even got a slab to fracture and propagate during an extended column test. The third and most educational activity during this period was a hybrid snowball fight baseball game. Another great day in the field!
Week two began with an overnight field trip to the CC Cabin. After departing from campus, we headed to Mueller State Park in Divide. We finally broke out the snowshoes and trekking poles to do a 2.6 mile loop around the park to observe different species. We also explored the visitor center and presented on the geologic, natural flora and fauna, and human history of the park. We drove in from very nice weather in the springs to some white out conditions and snow squalls, but the weather let up by the time we were out in the field. After lunch, we engaged in some more zen ecology, noting how the sun affected different aspects and seeing new birds such as the grey jay and crows. After the park, we made our way to the CC Cabin where we got unpacked and got settled before cooking a (mostly) vegan meal. We finished off the night with a discussion on how Climate Change is affecting the Pika, some adorable high altitude mammals that occupy harsh high altitude climates.
With field trips, especially in the winter, its important to be flexible. Our original plan for Tuesday was to collect data for a project in Manitou Experimental Forest, however the winds and snow were very heavy and we opted to head back to school to work on some other assignments like a bird identification from the day before. Back in the classroom the following days, we learned some more on snow science like how to dig pits, monitor the temperature gradients in the pit, do hardness and compression tests, and learn how factors such as temperature, sun, aspect, and wind affect the snowpack. We presented on different groups from around the world to learn about human adaptations to winter environments, with myself and my partner researching the Inca. While the Inca of Peru didn’t necessarily have many winter specific behaviors due to their proximity to the equator, they did need many high altitude adaptations due to their location in the Andes. The Inca are known for their impressive terracing and aqueducts which helped support high altitude farming. They were also the creators of Jerky, dried, preserved, and stored in large quantities and possible from the large temperature swings from day to night. We also learned more on animal physiology and evolution, and prepared for our trip to Gothic by watching the second place Film4Climate video about Billy Barr and his impressive collection of snow data. The link is listed below and definitely worth the click!
Hello from the CC van on the way to Gothic! As we embark on our five day field trip to the remote research laboratory located several miles North of Crested Butte, I can’t help but think of the earlier trips we did this block. Our first field trip was a day trip to Bear Creek Nature Center and later Garden of the Gods Park. With a member of the staff, we embarked on a guided loop through three different types of ecosystems in the park.
The first area was riparian, the wetlands adjacent to creeks, streams, and rivers. Because of the amount of moisture here, many plants thrive. The tallest trees are often found lining these areas, and in turn, help to protect watershed health by minimizing erosion. The health of these watersheds is important for a multitude of reasons, but one interesting fact is that Bear Creek was the site in which the last native population of Cutthroat Trout, previously thought to have been extinct, were located! While streams may look frozen over, water is almost always flowing underneath and life continues to exist through the winter. When the top layer of a creek freezes over, it limits the space in which other water can flow through and therefore the flow becomes stronger as its forced through limited space. This increase in energy will usually prevent the whole stream from freezing.
The next area we observed were the shrub lands. Here, we encountered “deer pizza” named as a favorite snack of the local mule deer. The shrub, also known as Mountain Mahogany, was often chewed up and surrounded by the distinct two part pointed hoof prints of these common mammals. The last environment was the meadows, the highest elevation area of the center. Here, we noticed many grasses and Yucca plants, and it was much more open than the previous two locations. We were able to identify many trees and birds, such as junipers, gamble oaks, and chickadees, for our whole block assignment to identify and explain a bit about 20 different species present for Colorado winters. We also did a brief introduction to snow science with Ryan Hammes by using crystal cards and magnifiers to look at snowflake shape and size. The big fat snowflakes that skiers and riders dream about are called “stellar.” We’re all familiar with the fact that each snowflake is unique, but we also learned that each snowflake originally starts out with 6 arms! Stellar snowflakes continue to have 6 distinct arms, while other snow in windy or warm weather may lose some of their arms on their descent. Lastly, we tested the temperature gradient in the snowpack. We will continue our snow science tests in the field in Gothic!
Our next field trip during first week was to the majestic Pikes Peak where we met with Ranger Jeffrey Hovermale. We identified a few other trees during a brief hike around. The main takeaway on our van ascent up the peak was to notice how elevation impacted what species of trees we were seeing. Tree line is often associated with elevation, but it is actually determined by temperature. Tree line is the point of elevation at which trees stop growing, but it is often higher the closer to the equator you get, and can even vary on one slope based on its aspect (the ordinal direction a slope faces). We finished the day out with “zen ecology.” More than enjoying the bluebird day by resting in the snow, we sat in silence and isolation for a period of 20-30 minutes to observe the environment and creatures that we might otherwise scare away or miss while clomping around on snowshoes.
Back in the classroom on Friday, we had a guest visitor from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Ranger Frank McGee. While McGee is also a federal employee like Hovermale, their jobs offered them unique perspectives. Much of McGee’s work is law enforcement, as the black market trade for animals and animal products is surpassed only by the drug trade. Additionally, Colorado Parks and Wildlife does much of their education and monitoring programs of local populations in the winter. They are also responsible for species reintroductions, such as the proposed bill on the ballot for Grey Wolf introduction. Overall a really great week with lots of time in the field and viewpoints from some experts!
Hello from the inaugural Snow Ecology class! My name is Emily Kressley and I will be blogging about the course over the next few years. While we’re a bit into the class by now, we wanted to backtrack a bit and cover what we’ve been doing so far.
Co-taught by Professor Emilie Gray and Director of Outdoor Education Ryan Hammes, the course aims to give an introduction to how organisms survive the winters in the different mountain environments of Colorado. The course also includes a snow science and snow safety portion so that we can travel through these environments on snowshoes without putting ourselves at risk to avalanche danger. During the first week of class, we set up our field journals. Over the course of the entire block, we are compiling 30 species identifications. These IDs come from clues like tracks, sounds, marks on vegetation, or seeing the physical organism. In the case of identifying coniferous trees, we can use a flow chart and ID the species by looking at the bark, the number of needles in each cluster, and the structure of their needles, cones, and branches. We also learned how to set up our packs for various field trips.
Winter’s can be pretty unforgiving and long days in the field learning about different animal, plant, insect, and other organismal adaptations have led us to understand how to properly dress and what equipment we need. Some of this equipment includes more mundane tools like sunscreen and sunglasses due to the high altitude sun and reflection on the snow, but other more exciting developments were the addition of beacon, probes, and shovels to our tool kit. We also have been exposed to many online tools and apps such as Caltopo, an interactive map system, the Merlin Bird ID app, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC).
We wear beacons, or avalanche transceivers, that emit pulsed radio signals. In the event that a member or members of our group were to be buried in an avalanche, the other members of the group would switch their beacons to search mode and follow the flux lines indicated by arrows on the beacon. The lower the number gets on the beacon, the closer you are to the buried member. We practiced in the beacon field at the ORC prior to bringing the equipment out to the mountains. Once the number gets fairly low, you engage in a more fine-tuned search, keeping the orientation of the beacon facing forward and constant, and moving it in a T pattern. This can be a bit tricky, but once the lowest number is located, the point is marked and phase 2 of the search begins. The party begins probing, starting at the point where the lowest number was marked and working out in a concentric circle. It is important to keep the probe, a very long metal rod with a sharp end to push through snow, perpendicular to the slope when you push it down with 2 hands. The snowpack may be several feet deep, but a probe strike on a body should feel distinct from pushing through snow around it. The last portion is to step 1.5 times back the distance down the person is (measured on the probe) and begin digging. Efficiency and speed are key here as the leading causes of death from avalanches are asphyxiation or blunt trauma, yet working smart and safely is better than panicked haste. The rescuers should locate the airway first and start CPR if necessary.
We will be conducting a large portion of our snow science studies while on our week long field trip in Gothic. Come back soon to learn more about our specific days in the field and what we saw!