Latest fellowship adventure: Visit to Niwot Ridge

Date posted: September 7, 2009
Posted in: climate change | Science and Research | Science education | Travel & exploration
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The Ted Scripps Fellowship continues to keep me busy and happy. Through Charles Wilkinson’s environmental law class, I’ve become acquainted with Wallace Stegner and his book about John Wesley Powell. Too bad the class discussion won’t likely focus on Powell’s brave first run of the Colorado River; the descriptions triggered big homesickness for canyon country and are firmly etched in my mind. But I agree that the meat of the book lies in Powell’s revolutionary attempts to brand Western land policy with sound ethics; and that’s of course what will be most important for the class.

Meteorite!

Meteorite!

I’m completely enamored with mineralogy class, in the geology department. I was hooked the first day, when our encyclopedic instructor, Joe Smyth, passed around a meteorite somewhere around 5 billion years old. It was black (iron) but metallic, and really heavy to hold; a true marvel. Mineralogy has sent me back to the chemistry textbooks I thought I escaped years ago, but willingly now, because I want to understand what rocks are made of (e.g., the minerals) as a window into the structure of the Earth and other planets. And of course there’s my special interest in the mineral apatite, the source of much of the world’s phosphate — and a pretty gem, as it turns out.

There’s a bit of a conflict between what I’m learning in mineralogy class and in my mining law class. Geologists say a mineral is (among other things) a solid that is not formed by biological processes. But United States mining laws for more than two centuries have included coal, oil, gas and even water as minerals. Nope, that’s not a typo.  The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1978 (Andrus v. Charlestone Stone Products) that water is indeed a mineral. Bit of a mind-bender, yes?

Niwot Ridge hikeThere are other opportunities that come with the fellowship. On Friday, all of us fellows took a field trip up to Niwot Ridge. The high-altitude site is home of the Mountain Research Station, a facility of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR).

lonelytree1We started our short hike in the subalpine ecotone, and quickly ascended above treeline.

There, we ran into this crew. They’re installing a system to warm the ground by 4 degrees C in isolated plots, and they’ll watch to see which plants will still germinate. The idea is to try to foresee plant responses to climate change. I wonder why there aren’t any intermediate temperature tests, maybe with 1 or 2 degree temperature increases to which plants might actually be forced to adapt in the short term. I asked, but didn’t get much of an answer; the crew wasn’t exactly expecting a pack of camera-toting journalists.

The warming apparatus over one experimental plot.

The warming apparatus over one experimental plot.

I think that field tech said each light will use one kilowatt of electricity when the project is up and running. I wasn't taking notes, and I'm numerically challenged. In any case, it's going to be quite an energetically intensive operation!

I think that field tech said each light will use one kilowatt of electricity when the project is up and running. I wasn’t taking notes, and I’m numerically challenged. In any case, it’s going to be quite an energetically intensive operation!

Historically, Niwot Ridge has made great contributions to ecology. I wrote a story for National Geographic News back in June about the work of Steve Schmidt, who investigates the edges of retreating glaciers to see which microbes move in first to colonize the newly exposed soil. He and his colleagues got their start at the Niwot Ridge Long Term Ecological Research Site and have expanded to investigate the edges of glaciers in South America. (My story is here.)

The ridge also hosts the Tundra Laboratory at 11,600 feet (3,528 meters) above sea level. And it’s the home of the world’s second-oldest sample of atmospheric CO2. Kurt Chowanski, a climatologist at the Mountain Research Station and our tour guide, showed us a couple of the sampling vessels inside the CO2 sampling shack, which was built in the 1950s.

Tom Yulsman, the Scripps fellowship co-chair, takes a video clip of Kurt and some CO2-sampling equipment.

Tom Yulsman, the Scripps fellowship co-chair, takes a video clip of Kurt and some CO2-sampling equipment.

CO2 has pretty much been rising ever since …

This printout was hanging on the wall in the main research station, where people actually have office space.

This printout was hanging on the wall in the main research station, where people actually have office space.

We made it to the top just as black clouds were starting to convene, so I ate lunch quickly and beat a hasty retreat back down the mountain (I’m more wary of lightning than most), about an hour ahead of the rest of the crew. They assured me they thought I was much weirder for wearing a frog hat than for being scared of lightning! Good crew …

The 2009-2010 Ted Scripps Fellows in Environmental Journalism at CU Boulder. From left: Jim Mimiaga, Laura Frank, Suzie Lechtenberg, Anne Minard and Michael Kodas.

The 2009-2010 Ted Scripps Fellows in Environmental Journalism at CU Boulder. From left: Jim Mimiaga, Laura Frank, unnamed cool person, Anne Minard (sporting the frog hat) and Michael Kodas.

Thanks to Scripps program co-chair Tom Yulsman for supplying us with much pre-trip information, some of which made it into this post.

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