Current Research

Field Season 2014-2015

Researchers spend many hours and days collecting data about various natural, cultural and social processes in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). The following studies are among many that had boots on RMNP ground during the summer of 2014 and 2015.

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5 minutes, 5 seconds

Colorado's September 2013 floods affected many areas of Rocky Mountain National Park.  Researchers are studying this latest natural disturbance in the park's natural history. 

Researcher measures water flow rates.
Luca Rossi uses a current meter to measure flow rates.

NPS Photo / Karina Puikkonen

Geomorphic Response of Roaring River and Fall River to the September 2013 Flood

Dr. John Pitlick, University of Colorado Boulder

The September 2013 storm triggered widespread erosion and instability along Roaring and Fall Rivers in Horseshoe Park. It was the second time an unexpected event redistributed sediment across the Alluvial Fan and increased sediment supply to both rivers. The 1982 Lawn Lake dam breach originally weakened the Roaring River channel. Researchers are documenting the time-evolution of new sediment transport in these river corridors. This will help explain the causes and geomorphic consequences of these flooding events.

Researchers locate a tree core sampling site
Dr. Sara Rathburn and Annette Patton look for a tree core site.

NPS Photo / Karina Puikkonen

Upland Processes and Controls on September 2013 Mass Movements

Dr. Sara Rathburn, Colorado State University

The September 2013 storm initiated multiple debris flows along the eastern boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park. While surprising, it wasn't the first time mass movements have occurred in the park's history. Researchers are evaluating the contributing factors of these most recent slides and will rebuild a chronology of historic debris flows. Understanding these physical processes will help determine where other unstable areas in the park may be.

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4 minutes, 43 seconds

Willows in Moraine Park have declined due to different environmental impacts and pressures.  Learn about current research that is assessing the impact of fire on this riparian shrub.

Researcher covers a seed rain trap with chicken wire
Dr. Kristen Kaczynski covers a seed rain trap with chicken wire.

NPS Photo

Restoration of Riparian Willows

Dr. Kristen Kaczynski, Colorado State University

Various human and environmental factors have affected the willow communities of Moraine Park for over 100 years. The Fern Lake Fire of 2012 is the most recent disturbance that caused unknown consequences on this riparian ecosystem. Researchers are quantifying seed production of remaining willows and restoration methods that will help guide future willow recovery efforts.

Ptarmigan researchers fit a tracking device on a ptarmigan hen.

NPS Photo / Karina Puikkonen

Assessing the Vulnerability of White-tailed Ptarmigan to Climate Change

Cameron Aldridge, U.S. Geological Survey
Gregory Wann, Colorado State University

Long-term studies of alpine bird species are rare, but Trail Ridge Road has been the study area for white-tailed ptarmigan research since 1966. This year marked the third field season that U.S. Geological Survey scientists gathered data for a new study. They monitored the life cycle events of ptarmigan and plant food resources to understand how climate shapes the reproductive success of white-tailed ptarmigan hens. This research will provide a clearer picture of why Trail Ridge populations have declined since the 1970's and what could happen to this delicate bird species in upcoming decades.

See Rocky Mountain National Park's website for more information on white-tailed ptarmigan.

One researcher records data while another measures wood
Stream morphology researchers gather data about woody debris along Glacier Creek.

NPS Photo / Karina Puikkonen

Leaky Rivers: Nutrient Retention and Productivity in Rocky Mountain Streams Under Alternative Stable States

David Walters, U.S. Geological Survey
Dr. Ellen Wohl, Colorado State University

A legacy of human activity has removed large amounts of wood from rivers in the southern Rocky Mountains. Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) has young forests and large patches of old-growth forests that have remained relatively pristine. These facts brought an interdisciplinary team of Colorado State University researchers together. They have spent two field seasons understanding the role logjams play in defining the various physical and biological characteristics of mountain headwater streams in RMNP and the surrounding Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest. The study will provide an understanding of how management histories have influenced the dynamics of these riparian ecosystems.

See Rocky Mountain National Park's webpage for more information on the park's hydrologic activity.

Two researchers study alpine vegetation
Researchers study plant communities on the alpine tundra.

NPS photo / Karina Puikkonen

Plant Community Effects on Alpine Ecosystem Response to Nitrogen Deposition

Dr. William Bowman, University of Colorado Boulder
Amy Churchill, University of Colorado Boulder

Higher levels of Nitrogen have already been measured in high elevation lakes, but exposed plants in the alpine tundra are also prone to this rising air pollutant. University of Colorado Boulder researchers have spent three field seasons gathering data to analyze how tundra plant composition and chemistry, and soil chemistry process nitrogen in similar alpine meadows across RMNP, Niwot Ridge (CO), Shoshone National Forest (WY), Fraser Experimental Forest (CO) and Arapaho National Forest (CO). Understanding Nitrogen thresholds are important in alpine systems because crossing that tipping point will have consequences on the future of the alpine tundra and downhill ecosystems.

See Rocky Mountain National Park's website for more information about the alpine tundra ecosystem.

A geologist looks closely at a granite boulder
Josh Johnson looks for minerals in a granite boulder.

NPS photo / Karina Puikkonen

Constraints on Colorado Front Range (RMNP) Evolution by Testing and Developing Helium Thermochronometers

Joshua Johnson, University of Colorado Boulder

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) has experienced at least three mountain building events, but roughly three quarters of the park's 1.8 billion year geologic history remains a mystery. CU-Boulder researcher Joshua Johnson is using helium thermochronology to understand the timing of the park's geologic events. This technique uses the production of radioactive helium that was locked into igneous and metamorphic minerals when they cooled below a certain temperature. Simulating this thermal history will help address RMNP's geologic unknowns as well as contribute to understanding larger processes of how rocks are unearthed beneath mountain ranges.

See Rocky Mountain National Park's website for more information on the park's geologic activity.

researcher in a safety vest sits on a rock
Christa Sumner waits for more visitors at her survey site in 2013.

photo courtesy of Christa Sumner

Q & A with a Researcher

Christa Sumner, University of Wyoming
PhD Candidate in Human Dimensions of Ecology

Visitor Perceptions of Bark Beetle Impacted Forests in the Rocky Mountains

What is your research project about?

This purpose of this study is to gain a greater understanding of the connection between society and nature. People come here and get the "wow" factor. They see the visual sights and hear the sounds of nature. They feel the spray of a waterfall or the breeze on their faces. They smell the pine forest or smoke from a wildfire burning in the distance. I'm trying to find a way to connect these human aesthetic responses with the knowledge of ecological processes. I want to merge these two together in a way that is not conflicting, but actually compliment each other.

What surprising observations did you make during your field season?

I interviewed visitors to see if their knowledge about the pine beetle affected their emotional response to the forest. It seems that most visitors still saw the forest as beautiful despite all the beetle kill, so that was very encouraging.

See Rocky Mountain National Park's website for more information on pine bark beetle.

Last updated: September 18, 2017