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Niwot Ridge Long Term Ecological Research Site

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Climatic Controls on Snow-Vegetation Interactions Across an Elevational Gradient  (University of Colorado at Boulder)

Research Focus

Niwot Ridge is the only one of NSF's 26 Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites that is located in sub-alpine and alpine environment. It encompasses several thousand acres of subalpine forest, tundra, talus slopes, glacial lakes and wetlands stretching up to more than 13,000 feet on top of the Continental Divide.

It conducts long- and short-term experiments and long-term monitoring to study biotic and ecosystem-level responses to variation in climate and atmosphere for the alpine tundra.  Specific research themes include the movement of energy and nutrients across the alpine-subalpine landscape, the influence of nitrogen pollution on ecosystems and hydrology, and the influence of climate on diversity and ecosystem function. 

Research Outcomes

Niwot Ridge LTER scientists discovered evidence of microbial activity in a rock glacier high above the tree line in the Rocky Mountains, a barren environment previously thought to be devoid of life.

Other research found that high-altitude aquifers honeycomb parts of the Colorado Rockies, trapping snow melt and debunking the myth that high mountain valleys act as "Teflon basins" to rush water downstream.

Still other research showed that a decrease in Rocky Mountain snowfall has slowed the release of heat-trapping carbon dioxide gas from forest soils into the atmosphere during the dead of winter. The study was part of NSF's Alpine Microbial Observatory project. Measurement of CO2 in mountain forests is critical to understanding the bigger environmental picture and how forests, soil microbes and the atmosphere interact.

Education & Outreach

The Niwot Ridge LTER supports K-12 outreach, collaborating with existing programs in the area and working with the Boulder Valley School District. The outreach programs emphasize the connection between alpine systems and the communities of the Rocky Mountain Front Range.

For students who don’t live in the area, the Niwot Ridge LTER offers a Virtual Field Trip to Niwot Ridge. This presentation gives users a taste of the biodiversity that can be found above the treeline and explores the effects of excess nitrogen from car exhaust and agriculture on the Niwot Ridge ecosystem.

My Water Comes from the Rocky Mountains is one of the children’s books in LTER Network’s Schoolyard Children’s Book Series. It introduces children in the Rocky Mountain states to the distinctive wildlife, ecosystems and diverse uses of water along the way from the mountains to the plains.

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Images (1 of )

  • Niwot Ridge against a blue sky
  • Niwot Ridge aerial
  • Niwot Ridge LTER field research
Niwot Ridge LTER site encompasses several thousand acres of subalpine forest, tundra, talus slopes, glacial lakes and wetlands.
Niwot Ridge LTER
Copyright
Niwot Ridge is the only one of NSF's 26 Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites that is located in sub-alpine and alpine environment.
Niwot Ridge LTER
Copyright
Niwot Ridget LTER conducts long- and short-term experiments and long-term monitoring to study biotic and ecosystem-level responses to variation in climate and atmosphere for the alpine tundra.
Niwot Ridge LTER
Copyright