Sunday, August 18, 2019

RMBL hosts scientists from around the world

Part of new global network

By Alissa Johnson 

Scientists and researchers from around the world gathered at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) last weekend to launch a global network of mountain observatories. It was a historic occasion, setting the stage for the coordination of worldwide mountain studies—an effort that, according to organizers, will help scientists further study how mountain ecosystems influence everything from climate and hydrology to human use and governance.

The weekend was also notable because mountain scientists could gather and discuss mountains in the mountains, something that’s not always easy to do. According to RMBL’s executive director Ian Billick, very few mountain research stations and observatories are set up to host large groups. But the recent completion of a five-year, $11 million capital campaign and resulting facility upgrades meant that RMBL could serve as host for the three-day workshop.

“It was a kickoff, an opportunity for people working in mountain observatories and field stations to meet each other and create a substantial plan for [coordinating data],” Billick explained. A lot of mountain studies data is collected on local levels, but when it comes to comparing discoveries in places like the Himalayas to places like Gothic, the opportunities haven’t been readily available. Scientists might not be aware of studies in other locations or collect data in the same ways. With coordination that can change.

“People can start to look across the world to generate insights that can help us locally. That will be one of the big initiatives of the future,” Billick said.

Officially called the Global Network of Mountain Observatories, 50 people represented 33 mountain observatories on five of the seven continents (excluding Australia and Antarctica). According to a press release from the network, representatives were from academia, field stations, information technology and the arts and humanities.

The network grew out of efforts at the University of California–Berkeley and the University of Bern in Switzerland. In the press release, director of UC Berkeley’s Central Sierra Field Research Station’s Jeff Brown said, “Mountains are places where people are still able to experience awe and wonder, and are places where much of the water on which humans, wildlife, agriculture, and plants depend. It is our intention to shine the light on both of these issues, while at the same time looking to broaden our understanding of how these places actually work.”

Billick explained that the network would provide a central organizational point, helping people collect data in the same way. The resulting insights will have relevance for scientists and communities around the globe.

“Understanding how to think about the services that mountains provide is something that almost every continent, other than Antarctica, faces,” he said.

That said, the effort will take time. Billick says this is the first time mountain scientists have come together in this way. And while the Chinese government has offered to host the next meeting, it will take time to iron out details in terms of how the network functions.

“I think it’s going to take a while to figure out how it’s going to unfold in the future,” Billick said.

In many ways, simply being able to bring everyone together was a big a step. According to the network’s press release, the weekend was the culmination of efforts that began in the 1990s. And being able to meet in the mountains was significant, too.

Billick explained, “RMBL is one of the few facilities in the world located in the mountains that has the capacity to host the number of people that came through this weekend.”

The recent capital campaign and community support made it possible for RMBL to improve its facilities to the point that it could host large groups. “[The campaign was] about making RMBL financially sustainable and we’ve been able to not just increase and improve the quality of our facilities but also substantially increase our ability to maintain them,” Billick said.

Over five years, the campaign raised $5 million to make many facility upgrades and make RMBL more financially sustainable.

“It included the community center, the research center that we opened a couple of years ago, the visitors center, the acquisition of the North Pole Basin, and also included overhauling water, Internet and a lot of the basic infrastructure. Within that there was also fellowship support for students and scientists,” Billick said.

“The local community was enormously supportive and there are a lot of contractors and subcontractors that worked on buildings and took a lot of pride in doing some really nice projects,” Billick continued.

That kind of support is key to a facility like RMBL. Most field stations fall under the umbrella of a college or university, but RMBL is a nonprofit organization that is entirely focused on serving students and scientists.

“All the work the community put into the buildings and financial support not only means we’re offering better service in the summer and more financially sustainable, it also helps put RMBL and Crested Butte on the map internationally. RMBL has been well known and people have wanted to come here, but now we have the facilities and the abilities to host these groups in the fall,” Billick said.

Last weekend, that included more than the Global Network of Mountain Observatories. RMBL also hosted workshops and meetings for field stations across the globe (not limited to mountains, as the network is) and workshops looking at digitizing plant collections and putting them online. That’s a lot of people and a lot of progress during a time of year that would have otherwise been quiet.

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