In the 1920s, the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory was founded in the abandoned mining town of Gothic, Colorado, about 9 miles north of Crested Butte. Since then, thousands of field biologists have studied the streams, snowfall and soil in the diverse mountain ecosystem. Now, researchers are pointing their instruments skyward.
“This project tries to make the atmospheric link between how the atmosphere feeds the watershed and where all the water comes from,” said John Bilberry, project manager of the Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory campaign.
How scientists collect data
Bilberry stands in front of a row of white shipping containers housing mobile laboratories that have traveled the Arctic and Southern Ocean near Antarctica.
The steel boxes are filled with different research instruments, like the LIDARS, which sends a laser into the sky and uses sensors connected to a receiver to measure the reflection. Depending on the timing, the equipment can determine the height of a cloud.
The project includes dozens of different instruments that will collect an unprecedented amount of data for nearly two years, Bilberry said.
For the first time, atmospheric measurements will be directly linked to measurements of available water.
The information will improve the computer models that scientists use to predict water availability in mountain watersheds. This is important data for Colorado and the West as a 20-year mega-drought, fueled by climate change, dries up the Colorado River.
“Mountains are truly the water towers for much of the world’s freshwater,” said Erik Hulm, project manager at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.
He says this research will help better understand how mountain watersheds behave with a changing climate and what that could mean for the 40 million people who depend on Colorado River water – and the millions more who depend on mountain water around the world.
What will the collected data be used for
This research, led by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, will build on years of studying water on or below ground in the upper Colorado River basin. According to Myrtille, one missing piece of data the project could provide is how an environment as complex as a mountain watershed extracts moisture from the atmosphere.
He says improvements to computer models will help policymakers and stakeholders, like farmers, water managers and utilities, know how much water the West will have in a warmer climate.
Dan Feldman is the campaign’s principal investigator. He said that with climate change, “practical” lessons from the past now provide only a partial understanding of how much and when the water is coming from the Colorado River.
He cited the mega-drought as an example of a “far and rapid” departure from the hydrology of the past.