Our Changing Watershed

Climate change is reshaping the ecology and hydrology of mountain watersheds like the Roaring Fork. The Roaring Fork Observation Network (also known as iRON) is a long-term research and outreach program managed by the Aspen Global Change Institute. The program’s goal is to help land managers, local residents, and scientific researchers better understand the relationship between warming air temperatures and shifts in the systems that support natural and human communities.

The Roaring Fork Observation Network collects and shares data on soil moisture, climate, and ecology in a Colorado River headwaters basin.

“The natural world is dynamic, not static, and the older each of us gets, the more apparent is this truth.

– John Magnuson, Long-Term Ecological Research and the Invisible Present

explore the network stations

The iRON program centers around data collected by 10 stations spread across the watershed’s elevational gradient and representing a variety of ecosystem types. Stations collect recurrent data on soil moisture and weather conditions.

Click on the station grid below to learn more about each station.

Roaring Fork Observation Network Data

Explore the data

The Roaring Fork Valley

The Roaring Fork Valley is a 1,451-square mile (3,769 square km) watershed located in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Our network stations represent the varied ecozones of this watershed, from the scrub oak dominated region near the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers to the delicate high alpine habitat above 12,00ft (3,660m) on Independence Pass.

Over 30,000 people live in the Roaring Fork Watershed. As a headwater for the Colorado River, the basin provides water to an additional 40 million people out west as well as to residents of the Colorado Front Range who receive their water via transmountain diversions.

The economy of the Roaring Fork Watershed is largely recreation-driven today, but legacies remain of farming, ranching, and mining. With the population in the area projected to continue growing, relationships with the natural environment will continue to be redefined over time. Questions of development, water availability, wildlife conflict, and use of parks and trails must be considered from a dual perspective of local pressures and the context of climate change impacts. The iRON program provides a unique resource to help the Roaring Fork community understand the role of climate, hydrology, and ecology in sustaining the special qualities of this area.

Why Soil Moisture?

Botanists from the Colorado Natural Heritage Program work with an AGCI intern to conduct a vegetation survey at a Roaring Fork Observation Network site, June 2017.

Soil moisture is a hidden but critical player in the interactions between the atmosphere, soil, streams, and plant life. It is critical in shaping ecosystems and helps determine which plants will survive and thrive in a given location. Soil moisture also acts as an intermediary in the exchange of water between the air, plants, and streamflow. Researching the dynamics of soil moisture processes can help researchers better model climate change impacts in mountain systems and can help resource managers better forecast future conditions, from water supply to the suitability of different plant species restoration efforts.

Changes in air temperature and timing or volume of snowmelt or rain all have consequences for soil moisture. As the climate of our valley warms, soil moisture patterns are likely to change too—but how those changes occur and their impacts across other systems will only be revealed if long-term observations record those shifts over time. The Roaring Fork Observation Network helps provide a valuable record of this kind, with benefits for both international researchers and our own local community.


AGCI’s iRON monitoring network and website were created with support and funding from: