Ongoing ResearchEach year there are over 100 active research projects happening in Rocky Mountain National Park. Learn about some of our ongoing research below.
Dr. Sarah Schliemann, MSU DenverRoughly one third of RMNP is composed of alpine tundra – the land above the trees. This complex ecosystem is home to some of the most fragile flora in the park. Over the last three years, researchers from the Metropolitan State University of Denver have focused on what’s beneath the alpine vegetation: alpine soil.
MSU’s research has focused on soil respiration in RMNP, particularly in the alpine ecosystem. Soil respiration is when soil organic matter decomposes, releasing carbon dioxide; it is also a key indicator of soil health. Soil plays a vital role in storing carbon dioxide throughout the world; under normal climate conditions, alpine soils can be particularly effective at storing carbon, usually in the form of partially decomposed plant material. However, alpine soil’s effectiveness as a carbon sink is reduced when soil temperature rises. This change can not only drastically affect soil respiration, but the plant life that relies on it as well.
MSU’s studies provide an important foundation for further research into alpine communities and the effects a changing climate might have on them. Furthermore, their research provides an opportunity for undergraduate students to participate in significant field research. Continued evaluation and documentation of changes in the soil of different landscapes provides vital information for present and future studies.
Glacial Change in Rocky Mountain National Park
Dr. Daniel McGrath, Colorado State UniversityRMNP has a significant relationship with glaciers – indeed, from popular destinations like Moraine Park and Sheep Lakes, much of RMNP has been shaped by past glacial activity. There are even glaciers that exist in RMNP today. While they are not the massive glaciers that once carved valleys through this landscape, these cirque glaciers provide unique opportunities to study how small glaciers influence their downstream environment, and also how they respond to a changing climate.
Scientists study the health of glaciers, referred to as their mass balance, by measuring the amount of snowfall that is added to them during the winter and the amount of snow and ice that melts the following summer. Current research seeks to discover and document the current health of RMNP’s glaciers, and understand the controls on their past behavior in order to predict their future.
Glaciers in RMNP tend to be found in high-elevation east/northeast facing cirques where they benefit from additional wind-blown snow input and reduced melt due to shading by surrounding peaks. In fact, some of the glaciers in RMNP accumulate 5 to 8 times as much snow as the surrounding landscape because of wind redistribution. This additional input appears to have made them less sensitive than other glaciers in the region to warming temperatures in recent decades, although there is concern over how long this buffering impact will persist.
Globally, meltwater from glaciers support unique downstream environments and can provide important drinking water and hydropower resources. Although the glaciers in RMNP are comparatively small, current research seeks to explore and quantify these hydrologic connections in the alpine environments of RMNP.
The Sounds of Rocky Mountain National Park
Dr. Jacob Job, Research Associate with the Sound and Light Ecology Team at Colorado State University and the National Park Service
In 2007, the Natural Sounds & Night Skies Division of the National Park Service collaborated with the Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and Biology departments at Colorado State University to create the Sound and Light Ecology Team. The general mission of the group is to understand the effects of noise and light pollution on ecological processes, inform the public about the importance of sound and light and its impact on wildlife and people, and preserve the natural sounds and night skies of the world. In 2015, Dr. Jacob Job began a project to record the natural sounds of Rocky Mountain National Park. Over the past several years, Dr. Job has made numerous expeditions to accessible and remote areas of the park and has collected over 200 sounds and soundscapes. The extensive catalog is now part of the Rocky Mountain National Park Sound Library (https://www.nps.gov/romo/learn/photosmultimedia/soundlibrary.htm) which includes songs and calls of over 60 bird species, numerous other wildlife species, and over a dozen non-living (e.g. wind, rain and thunder) soundscapes from around the park. While the recordings in the Sound Library are enjoyable and informative to local and remote visitors, they also serve as a benchmark for the sounds and soundscapes in the Park today. These recordings are crucial to understanding how climate, human encroachment, and human-made sounds affect wildlife and soundscapes throughout the Park. Dr. Job plans to continue his work in Rocky Mountain National Park in the coming years, focusing on recording the sounds of all breeding bird species in the park, as well as a more complete array of soundscapes that characterize Rocky.
The Rocky Mountain National Park natural sounds project is part of a bigger effort by Dr. Job, which is focused on creating similar recordings within parks across the Park Service. To learn more about the National Park Service's Natural Sounds program go to: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/sound/index.htm. To learn more about the Sound and Light Ecology Team visit: http://www.soundandlightecologyteam.colostate.edu.
Boreal Toad Research in RMNP
Principal Investigator: Timothy Korpita, RMC Bailey Fellow CU Boulder
Worldwide, amphibians are among the most threatened class of vertebrates due to significant threats including climate change and disease. In RMNP, research centered on boreal toads hopes to document the evolving relationship between the amphibious species and their environment. Currently, research funded through RMNP’s non-profit partner, the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, is studying the effects of Chytridiomycosis on boreal toads in the park. Chytridiomycosis is a disease caused by Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), a type of chytrid fungus. This fungus negatively affects amphibious populations by interfering with their ability to breathe and absorb water through their skin. This has contributed to a worldwide decline of amphibious species. Current research is also focusing on developing possible solutions or methods for combating Chytrid and preserving the park’s boreal toad population. Part of this research is lab based, attempting to isolate naturally occurring bacteria from the toads’ environment that could be used in a probiotic treatment against Bd, helping toads resist infection and increase their chance for survival.
Amphibian decline is a significant concern for conservation biologists, who warn that the decline could indicate future and more widespread biodiversity loss. Since amphibians all over the world are facing similar problems, boreal toad research in RMNP helps contribute to a broader library of research and knowledge.
Ice Patch Archaeology and Paleoecology in Rocky Mountain National Park
Dr. Jason M. Labelle, Associate Professor, Colorado State University
Since 2015, a group of researchers from Colorado State University has been exploring ice patches in Rocky Mountain National Park in order to document natural and cultural remains and create a baseline of study with regard to the retreat of ice patches over time. The study has found a variety of items that were preserved by the ice patches until their recession gradually revealed their contents. Some discoveries include spruce logs nearly 4000 years old, Native American artifacts, and remains of bighorn sheep, elk and deer. In previous studies in the park, archeologists found remains of bison.
The study hopes to continue exploring ice patches and documenting their contents in the future. One of the ultimate research goals is to find items of both cultural and environmental significance, preserved as rare glimpses through the window of time into the past. As climate change increases the rate at which ice patches degrade, the potential for discoveries can potentially add to a larger mosaic of similar studies being conducted around the world.
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.