Michael Remke, an environmental biology major at Fort Lewis College, placed 8-by-12 meter swaths of black shade
fabric on the slopes of the San Juan Mountains to mimic the effects dust has on the snowpack. These plots were set up on an alpine meadow south of West Turkshead Peak.­­/Courtesy Photo


After the dust settles

FLC looks at dust storms’ sway on alpine plants, recreation
by Tracy Chamberlin

As the saying goes, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Michael Remke found a way to do just that.
The Fort Lewis College senior combined his love of backcountry snowboarding and environmental biology in a research project that has future implications for the college, its students and land management practices.
Remke’s study looks at how dust storms blowing into the Colorado River Basin affect snowmelt, snow stability, the skiing industry and, particularly, alpine plants. He’ll present his findings at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at FLC’s Center of Southwest Studies Lyceum Room in a talk sponsored by the San Juan/Four Corners Native Plant Society.
“The majority of the talk will be about the impact (dust storms and accelerated snow melt) has on alpine plants,” Remke said.
Remke examined how the dry, arid conditions of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin combined with cattle grazing, agriculture and off-road vehicles causes the top layer of soil to get kicked up and blown to the alpine regions of Colorado and other states.  
The dust settles on places like the San Juan Mountains, blanketing the snowpack and preventing solar radiation from being reflected naturally.
Instead, the dark soil traps heat, and the temperature of the snowpack increases.
Remke set up small greenhouses (above) to study how the local plant life reacted  to warmer temperatures. These artificial warming chambers were new elements to the San Juan project./ Courtesy Phot­­o
The consequences of the higher temperatures and increased rate of melting snowballs, quite literally.
Layers of snowpack can become less stable, increasing potential for avalanches. Runoff rates can be greater and faster, allowing less water to recharge aquifers and increasing the potential for floods. And, the ski industry could see shorter spring seasons and greater dangers for backcountry enthusiasts.
Heidi Steltzer, assistant professor of the Biology Department at Fort Lewis, worked on a study in 2008 to examine the effects the dust has on the snowpack, using a technique with a black shade fabric that mimicked the dust. Julie Korb, associate professor in the Biology Department, assisted Steltzer with this project and also teaches Remke’s senior thesis class.
Steltzer collaborated with the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton to examine the rate of the snow melt in order to gauge its impact on the surrounding environment. She continued this research on the Brooks Mountain Range in northern Alaska, where she has been working for the past two summers and plans to return in 2012.
“The next step was to do an early snow melt combined with warming techniques,” Steltzer said.
Mini-greenhouses were constructed on and off the covered areas in the Alaskan arctic to see how the plant life reacted to the warmer temperatures. But the plant life there is not the same as here, and that is what Remke brought to the table.
“We would not have been able to do the San Juan project without (him),” Steltzer said.
His study examined how the plants specific to the San Juans reacted to early snow melt and higher temperatures.
Remke chose eight plants representing two plant communities: generalists and specialists.
“You can’t do that in the arctic,” Korb said. “Arctic plants are all specialists.”
The plants referred to as specialists are more sensitive to changing conditions than other species. They are used to the stressful environments at high elevations and cannot easily adapt to temperature fluctuations and quicker snow melts triggered by the dust storms.
Clover, sky pilot, wild strawberry and cinquefoil represent the specialists.
Remke compared these to the generalists, which are more tolerant and adaptable. These plants can be found in both the lower mountain elevations and alongside the specialists in the high alpine tundra. Yarrow, dandelion, wild candytuft and northern fairy candelabra represent the generalists.
These eight plants were chosen because they not only fit the categories but already inhabited the study area, an alpine meadow south of West Turkshead Peak, near Molas Pass.
The location of the site needed to be above 11,500 feet with the slope less than 30 degrees, with a southwest by southeast aspect. So the environmental biology major and mountaineer strapped on his snowboard and checked out the area.
Remke used the black fabric technique Steltzer introduced in her 2008 study. What he added were artificial warming chambers, or greenhouses, to the San Juan project. And thanks to Silverton Powdercats, Remke was able to get all the equipment up to the site.
He created four small subplots, 1-by-1 meter in size, within the larger 8-by-12 meter plots which simulated an early snow melt under the black fabric. Two of the subplots were used as controls, and two were subjected to the increased temperatures of the greenhouses, which can be seen from Little Molas Lake glittering in the sun.
This setup allowed Remke to measure the reactions of the plants to early snow melts and increased temperature caused by dust storms and climate change.
Remke hit the backcountry slopes to measure key events, like when the first leaves sprout, the first flowerings, or when the plants began seeding. He also examined the plant communities and their interactions, a new element to the San Juan project.
“They focused on looking at plant interactions as a component of the plant response,” Steltzer said.
One of the things Remke found was a change in the relationship between generalists and specialists. Typically, they assist each other’s growth as facilitators, but under the simulated conditions of an early snow melt, the two groups became competitors.
He also discovered the more adaptable generalists have the potential to move up the mountain and drown out the specialists, which can’t move any higher. This could affect the biological diversity of the alpine tundra.
“All they have to do is out-compete those species,” Korb said. And this could happen quickly because the generalists already know how to survive the high-altitude ecosystems.
Remke also collected data on soil temperatures, air temperatures and soil moisture. He recorded data on the generalists’ and specialists’ individual reactions to the changing conditions, as well as how they reacted as a community.
As the first year of this study, more research and data undoubtedly needs to be gathered to fully understand the relationships the plants have to each other and their environment.
However, research like Remke’s can begin to fill the gaps for local land managers, giving them the information they need to adapt to the changing climate. And just as Remke took the next step in Steltzer’s research, it is hoped others will take the next step in his.
“FLC has this amazing outdoor laboratory,” Korb said. “And we need to take advantage of that.”
After graduating this spring, Remke plans to continue working with Korb as a teaching assistant to her Field Ecology summer class. He’ll also be working as a conservation manager at Notch Ranch outside Pagosa Springs.
Eventually, Remke hopes to attend graduate school at the University of Colorado and turn the research he began here into his master’s thesis.
Korb plans to continue working with the Mountain Studies Institute, which also helped facilitate Remke’s study, and the San Juan National Forest Service to continue the research on the San Juan Mountains.
She will be on sabbatical for the winter semester in 2012 and intends to write a grant for the National Science Foundation to acquire funding to continue the snow melt and warming studies.