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My Turn to Intern for Our Environment

August 19, 2019

By Hunter Brown

This summer I was fortunate enough to have an internship with Aspen Global Change Institute (AGCI). During this summer internship I learned a lot about soil science, botany, biology, in-the-field survey work, and collecting data. I also conducted an experiment of my own using equipment provided to me by AGCI. I believe that how water is distributed will play a huge role in the future of the environment. I personally want to do my part in helping our environment in any way possible, so I am expanding my knowledge about environmental work, and this internship helped me do that greatly.

As part of the internship, I visited several of AGCI’s soil moisture stations (collectively called iRON) across the Roaring Fork Valley. These stations track moisture levels in the soil, collect rain, track humidity, and record all the data to be downloaded for study. Essentially, the stations give crucial information regarding the amount of moisture our area is receiving and how that will relate to climate change. We also did minor maintenance on a few of these stations, updating equipment and keeping them functional overall. This included snowshoeing up Independence Pass in the middle of June, through snow that was still three feet deep. The station located here is the only one equipped with a camera that takes frequent photos to track snowfall and phenological events like flower bloom. I downloaded the photos and turned them into a slideshow, time-lapsing the status of the snow for public viewing. At another station, halfway up Red Mountain in Glenwood Springs and hidden among the foliage, we rejuvenated the site by reapplying reflective tape to cords to keep the rodents at bay, changed out batteries on equipment that needed it, tightened the guide wires holding the station up, and repositioned the camera’s solar panel for optimum energy.

In addition to station maintenance, I took part in a Bioblitz, a vegetation survey, and a tree survey. The Bioblitz took place at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) where we worked with teams of scientists from the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, collecting and observing plant, animal, and insect specimens to track the different species in the area. This provided a detailed look into the health and biodiversity of the area. Knowing our environment’s health is critically important if we want to keep species alive and keep a balance between invasive and desired native species. During the vegetation survey, we plotted out an area for observation and recorded all the species found in that space. The tree survey, conducted at AGCI’s Northstar Aspen Grove site, similarly looked at ecological health and diversity, this time by taking note of the types of trees in a plot, the dimensions of each tree, and whether or not that tree had insect or disease damage.

For my individual project with AGCI, I studied and tracked the water usage of a type of plant called service berry (scientifically known as the Amelanchier alnifolia) up on Red Mountain. Using equipment from AGCI, I planted a soil moisture sensor under a service berry and hung a humidity sensor in the branches. Using the equipment, I hoped to track how much moisture was being lost from the ground under the service berry and how much relative humidity within the bush changed at different air temperatures throughout the day. This is pertinent information because in the future, as temperatures in the Glenwood Springs region continue to rise, service berry’s ability to thrive in the area may change, and service berry’s presence plays a role in water distribution using medium level water storage across local landscapes. Service berry prefers well drained soils or clay s to grow in. This makes the Glenwood area a prime candidate for service berry growth with its dry terrain and clay filled soils. Like most other plants, service berry absorbs water from the soil and then some of it transpires it back into the air during CO2 uptake during photosynthesis. Soil moisture water storage and its loss to evapotranspiration by plants plays an important role in local water storage and loss. Unfortunately, when the experiment was conducted, the soil moisture sensor failed for reasons unknown. I was still able to track temperature, relative humidity and dew point. Thanks to the data gathered from the nearby Glenwood Springs iRON station, I was able to compare its data with mine, from under the service berry, and still find some interesting interactions between variables, in spite of the lost information that the soil moisture sensor at my station failed to gather. After reviewing the data, I noticed that the service berry had higher levels of relative humidity during times with lower temperatures and lower relative humidity levels during high temperatures. This suggests that the plant transpires less when temperatures are high and more when temperatures are low.

Overall, the summer internship I spent with the AGCI was a very enlightening experience. I recommend it to anyone trying to move into the field of environmental science or anyone who wants to expand their knowledge of the environment and climate. I craved to get out in the field and understand what it meant to do actual environmental work from a scientific standpoint. This opportunity fulfilled that desire and offered a look into a career in environmental work.