Yesterday, I stood on top of Niwot Ridge in the Indian Peaks Wilderness with a clear look at both Longs Peak and - 100 miles away - Pikes Peak. Here's a little taste of the world at 11,500 feet.
It's pretty high up there - I was gasping like a landed fish during parts of the hike. But, wow was it an awe-inspiring view.
However, I wasn't just up there to see the sights - my fellow fellows and I were on our first fellowship field trip, to the University of Colorado's Mountain Research Station (MRS) about 25 miles west of Boulder. It's a field research site for studying mountain environments and ecosystems. Established in 1952, the MRS collects long-term climate data about mountain, sub-alpine and alpine zones, as well as maintains several meteorological stations (which have been up there since the start of the program).
There are bunch of big research projects going on in them thar hills, including how increasing temperatures in this area are affecting the Mountain Pine Beetle, what emissions (especially nitrogen) from nearby Denver are doing to the ecosystem and what climate change is doing to alpine lakes and the tundra.
The tundra - that's a word you might not have heard since sixth-grade science or maybe you only associate it with the Arctic - as in Arctic tundra. But it also applies to the area above the tree-line - in this part of the Rockies, that's at about 10,500 feet. At higher elevations higher, the growing season is short and typically pretty chilly, so plant life is hardy and small. There might be a few stunted and wind-twisted trees (it can get really windy up there), but it's mainly lichens, sedges (which resemble grasses) and low-growing shrubs.
It's in this area that scientists are conducting something called the Alpine Treeline Warming Experiment. Researchers have set up small test plots that are being deliberately warmed by infrared heaters with the goal of creating the conditions that, based on current average climate projections, they expect to see in the year 2100.
Here's what this outdoor laboratory looks like:
All those plots ringed by metal poles and covered in fine mesh are the areas where scientists are using the heaters, which are mounted in a circle around each set of scaffolding. The project began in 2008 and, as the researchers mention on their website (linked above), they're hoping to answer questions about how subalpine and alpine species will react to a warmer world.
These questions - and those being posed by the other scientists pursuing research in these mountains - won't be answered any time soon. Most of these projects are long term. As I mentioned, the University of Colorado has been monitoring carbon dioxide and other emissions and weather conditions up on the Niwot Ridge for over fifty years. That monitoring is no joke - someone comes up to collect samples every Tuesday, rain or shine or complete white-out blizzard. Sometimes they can use a snow machine to get around but a lot of times, they're walking or skiing. The amount of work and the physicality that goes into monitoring and synthesizing all that data isn't something I had thought much about and it gave me a whole new appreciation for what all these researchers are doing.
And then there's the fact that the information they find is only a tiny piece of what will come from these projects. I'm guessing that none of the guys who started all this back in 1952 are making that trek to Niwot Ridge anymore, or even working on the data that's coming in. That means all their hard work has passed on to the next few generations of scientists, who will now add their own discoveries to this ever-growing mountain of data without entirely knowing what will eventually come of it all or what it all even means.
That - like the view - is also pretty awe-inspiring.