To understand how mountains and the atmosphere carry water west, scientists aim their instruments at the Colorado sky

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In the 1920’s, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory was founded in the abandoned mining town of Gothic, Colorado, about 9 miles north of Crested Butte. Since, thousands of field biologists have studied streams, snowfall and soil in the varied 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, the project manager of the Field laboratory campaign integrated into the surface atmosphere.

Michael Elizabeth Sakas / CPR News
John Bilberry, project leader of the SAIL research campaign, stands outside the Mobile Storage Container Research Labs in Gothic, Colo., August 20, 2021.

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.

Michael Elizabeth Sakas / CPR News
Some of the mobile shipping container labs that will be collecting atmospheric data for nearly two years in Gothic, Colorado on August 20, 2021.

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.

Michael Elizabeth Sakas / CPR News
Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory project manager Erik Hulm points to the research equipment that will collect data for the SAIL campaign in Gothic, Colorado on August 20, 2021.

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.


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