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June 16th, 2011

NSF awards INSTAAR largest environmental sciences award in CU-Boulder history

The National Science Foundation has awarded INSTAAR a six-year, $5.9 million grant to continue intensive studies of long-term ecological changes in Colorado's high mountains, both natural and human-caused, over decades and centuries.

The grant is the largest environmental sciences award in CU-Boulder history, said INSTAAR Fellow and geography department professor Mark Williams, principal investigator on the grant. In 2005, NSF awarded CU-Boulder a $4.9 million renewal grant for environmental studies at the Niwot Ridge site. As one of five initial LTER sites selected by NSF in 1980, Niwot Ridge is now one of 25 such sites in North America and the only one located in an alpine environment.

John Murgel locates a plot on Mount Albion just south of the Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological Research site. North and South Arapaho Peaks and the Arapaho Glacier provide the backdrop. Photo: William Bowman, INSTAAR.

The renewal grant will allow faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates to continue key environmental studies at the Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site west of Boulder. The study site, considered extremely sensitive to climate change, is adjacent to the Mountain Research Station and encompasses several thousand acres of tundra, talus slopes, glacial lakes and wetlands stretching to the top of the Continental Divide.

“CU-Boulder has a worldwide reputation for monitoring global climate change from Greenland to Antarctica and its impacts on natural ecosystems and human populations,” said Vice Chancellor for Research Stein Sture. “To direct such a key program in our own backyard for the National Science Foundation is crucial from an environmental science standpoint and unique in that it provides a spectacular training ground for our students to work side-by-side with some of the world’s best climate change scientists.”

The LTER grant funds research for about 15 CU-Boulder graduate students and 25 to 30 undergraduates annually, Williams said, and more than a dozen CU-Boulder faculty members are co-investigators on the new program grant. Twelve undergraduates are conducting research at the Niwot Ridge site as part of the NSF's Research Experience for Undergraduates program, said William Bowman, INSTAAR fellow and director of CU-Boulder’s Mountain Research Station for the past 20 years. Bowman is also mentoring a student researcher at Niwot Ridge from Fairview High School in Boulder.

The Niwot Ridge site has been gaining stature by the consistent, high-quality research that has resulted in many publications in top-tier science journals, said Bowman, also a professor in the environmental biology department. He added that more than half of the research on Niwot Ridge is by scientists and students from around the world that are not associated with the LTER program.

Researchers on Niwot Ridge have charted long-term meteorological measurements that indicate a slight warming of the climate there. Williams noted that the temperatures are significant because even small changes in alpine ecosystems can cascade down and have negative effects on other ecosystems.

“The primary climate driver of the Niwot Ridge site is snow, and the mountains are our water towers,” said Williams. “As the alpine climate changes, one of the biggest impacts on humans will be a change in water resources. Even if we end up with the same amount of precipitation, in the form of less snow and more rain, we are going to end up with less usable water for municipalities.”

There already are some indications that the snowline in the Rocky Mountains is moving upward, which will affect the abundance and distribution of plants and animals and likely shorten ski seasons at resorts throughout the West in the future, he said.

CU-Boulder researchers also have charted a doubling in atmospheric nitrogen deposition on Niwot Ridge in the past several decades that is now adversely affecting some aquatic and terrestrial life on the ridge, said Williams.

In addition, researchers are keeping a close eye on existing populations of the American pika, a small mammal found in rocky talus slopes as high as 13,000 feet on Niwot Ridge. “Many consider the American pika a ‘sentinel species’ in terms of measuring the effects of climate change,” said Williams. Nine of the 25 populations the in Great Basin of Nevada documented between 1898 to 1990 had disappeared by 2008, apparently the result of warming temperatures.

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