AGCI Insight

Studying soil moisture in a dry year: A look back at 2018

December 17, 2018

2018 was an interesting year to be looking at iRON data. A low snowpack coming out of winter combined with warm spring and summer temperatures to lead to unprecedented water restrictions in many towns in the Roaring Fork Watershed, while the late arrival of summer rains also left many ecological communities coping with dry soils for the summer. Drought conditions such as those of 2018 are especially concerning in the context of climate projections for Colorado, which anticipate a continuation of warming air temperatures that could correspond to an increase in evaporative water loss and lower flows in streams and rivers. Although dry summers such as this can be both alarming and dangerous, they also create an essential impetus for discussions about water. For iRON, these discussions included bringing greater urgency to our search for partners in the water resource modeling community and expanding local outreach and education about our project. 2018 has been a productive year for iRON, and it has also strongly reminded us the of the value, indeed the necessity, of long-term ecological research. Here are some photos sharing highlights and key findings from the 2018 calendar year.

A Dry Start to Summer

After a winter with less than usual snow, snowmelt came early on Independence Pass, as can be seen from these comparative June photos from our station’s site for 2016, 2017, and 2018. From left to right, the photos were taken on June 2, 2016; June 5, 2017; and June 5, 2018.

Learning with Students

In 2018, we continued our partnership with CMC, hosting a student summer intern and leading a September field trip on drought, ecology and soil moisture. Below, summer intern Hadley Heibert takes field notes on a visit to the Glassier Ranch station and CMC Spring Valley students ID a plant on a field trip to the iRON Spring Valley station, Sept. 2018

Looking at the Data
The long summer stretch without rain, combined with early snowmelt dates meant that 2018 was an unusually dry year for soil moisture at many of our sites, including Sky Mountain. Long periods of record are important in ecology and hydrology research because they offer context and comparisons for the conditions of a single year.

Moving into 2019, we see multiple exciting opportunities for iRON. We have been inspired by the support this network has already received and by community interest in iRON research. We intend to build upon the momentum of 2018 to deepen our local engagement while also broadening the project’s reach. 2019 plans include:

• moving forward on discussions currently underway to add a station in the Castle Creek basin at a sub-alpine elevation, the final Roaring Fork ecozone not yet represented by the network,

• additional classroom visits and fieldtrips for high school and college students,

• the launch of an iRON citizen science initiative,

• and pursuit of a federal-level grant to apply iRON data to partnered research into water forecasting.

2018 has been a year of learning and growth for the project. It is our hope that that this one year will form just a small, though crucial, time period in a decades-long endeavor. The mission of iRON is to contribute to a better understanding of how mountain ecosystems and hydrology interact and empower communities to more effectively sustain these dynamic systems.