Observing the shifting seasons of science
Summer has returned to the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab (RMBL) in Gothic, Colorado, and so have some of our team from the Sublimation of Snow (SOS) Project. Since our last winter visit, the landscape has transformed. The meadows are vibrantly, alive-ly green in late June, dappled with gold dandelions and wildflowers white, yellow, and purple. Snow remains on only a few paths across the mountainsides, with just a narrow cornice of snow visible on the ridgeline of Gothic Mountain.
The contrast in human activity between winter and summer is also striking. February’s sparsely populated cabins are now at capacity, and scientists are everywhere: hiking to field sites, sweeping the hillsides for insects with long-handled nets, and discussing protocols on porches. Tourists are out in force as well, many passing through to a recreation area further up the road. A docent at the visitor center and gift shop tells me 200 visitors visited on a single day.
As the seasons change, the focus of the SOS project is also shifting from outdoors to indoors. Data collection has come to a close: technicians and engineers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) spent a few days in rapid disassembly mode. In less than a quarter of the time it took for the initial install, they removed 4 towers and 119 instruments from the Kettle Ponds field site. All winter, these instruments collected data to help sublimation researchers better understand snow depth, wind, air and snow temperature, and other processes affecting snow sublimation.
It feels a bit forlorn to see the site without our heavily instrumented towers. Everything is now loaded onto trucks or packed into black and yellow boxes nestled among the startlingly abundant corn lily (Veratrum californicum). Two of the snow pillows will stay here, relocated to the cabin of long-time Gothic resident billy barr. A legendary snow data collector, he is excited to add some new sensors to his weather array. Another snow pillow will travel just over the ridge of the Elk Mountains to join the equipment suite at AGCI’s soil moisture and weather site in the Castle Creek basin. Most of the sensors, however, are destined for a site halfway between Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada. Originally they were intended for the dry Tulare Lake Beds of California, but with this past year’s massive snow pack, after 25 years those lake beds are now a lake once more.
While the field equipment from this project is moving on, the indoor phase of the work is ramping up. Back in Seattle, at the University of Washington, project PI Jessica Lundquist and graduate students Danny Hogan and Eli Schwat are digging into millions of data points to explore how much sublimation occurred last winter and what specific environmental conditions lead to sublimation. Their time has shifted from digging snow pits to reviewing graphs. As they perform statistical analyses over the next year, the two winter months they lived in the Maroon Cabin at RMBL will provide context for the numbers on the screen.
The cabin has new residents now. Two of them will spend the summer studying pollinator/flower interactions, before moving on themselves, back to other universities and different data sets. Each season at RMBL sees new work and new researchers, always striving to understand this beautiful place just a little bit better, conducting science at the foot of Gothic Mountain.