Niwot Ridge LTER Program: Alpine Ecosystems as Early Warning Systems

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Presenter/Primary Author: 
Mark Williams
Tim Seastedt
Diane McKnight
Alan Townsend
Bill Bowman
Steve Schmidt
Peter Blanken

The Niwot Ridge (NWT) LTER site was one of the five original LTER sites established in 1980. The LTER program is based at the University of Colorado-Boulder and is administered through the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) and in cooperation with the Mountain Research Station, with special use permits from the US Forest Service. The LTER site features a high-altitude, state-of-the-art alpine tundra laboratory constructed in 1990.  Llocated at 11,500 feet. , Tthe lab allows year-round research in a harsh region where winds approach 160 mph and the wind-chill factor can dip as low as 70 degrees below zero. The NWT LTER program is the only alpine site in the LTER network and the only multidisciplinary, long-term alpine and subalpine study site on the continent. 

The panoramic splendor and complexity of high-elevation ecosystems have inspired and challenged humans for centuries. Our research has yet to identify a directional warming change, but statistically significant changes in precipitation and nitrogen deposition are affecting high elevation terrestrial and aquatic species.  We operate the highest-elevation eddy covariance site in the world, which directly measures land-atmosphere exchanges of energy and carbon dioxide. We are a leader in conducting research on life in extreme environments. Our research has also shown that microbes are active under the snow in the dead of winter, breaking down organic and inorganic material and recycling carbon and nitrogen at a higher than expected rate.  Our finding that microbial communities are active under snow has changed the estimated global rates of biogeochemical processes beneath seasonal snow packs. Our research has resulted in knowledge that both moves basic research forward and also supports conservation management in National Parks and Forest Service Lands. 

Our schoolyard LTER program brings environmental science education to thousands of K-12 students, teachers, and the public annually. The NWT LTER has published a children's book entitled "My water Comes from the Mountains" that describes the flow path of water from snow in the alpine to streams in the plains, as well as with the plants, animals, and communities that live near or use the stream along the way. The book has been highlighted in NSF Director Arden Bement's first speech on the environment and currently had a five-star rating on