Mt. Crested Butte with snowmelt in the foreground

Mt. Crested Butte with snowmelt in the foreground. (Photo credit: Heidi Steltzer)

As an ecologist working with the Environmental & Earth Science Area (EESA)’s Watershed Scientific Focus Area (SFA)—a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)-funded project aiming to understand the effects of water on a variety of biogeochemical processes—Dr. Heidi Steltzer and her research assistant, Chelsea Wilmer, spend a lot of time conducting fieldwork in the picturesque Colorado mountains.

“The seasonal availability of water is vital to how we live, grow our food, our energy systems, and our health,” Steltzer says. “The U.S. DOE has invested in the Watershed SFA to develop our understanding for how mountain watersheds work to provide the water on which we depend.”

Now, as she’s studying snowmelt and its effects on plant growth in Crested Butte, Colorado, Steltzer is bringing the Watershed SFA’s science to a much wider audience. Through the end of June, the Fort Lewis College biology professor is posting daily photo and video updates from Crested Butte’s mountain watershed to the American Geophysical Union (AGU)’s Instagram account. Her participation is part of the AGU’s effort to increase engagement in earth scientists’ fieldwork through an ever-changing cast of guest contributors.

For Steltzer and Wilmer, taking the extra time to bring the scientific process to life on a visual platform such as Instagram is well worth it, as they believe it will lead others to support the Watershed SFA’s work—a wide-ranging effort that collects data from a diversity of sources, including eight weather stations, 15 stream sampling stations and three deep groundwater wells. Samples are also brought into the lab for water quality and genomic analysis.

“Science is a creative process through which one explores the world,” Steltzer says. “Telling the story about who we are, what we do, and what motivates us is just as important to share as our scientific results.”

As a co-lead for the Watershed SFA’s ecohydrology team, Steltzer and her team are focusing in on Crested Butte’s peak snowmelt season, a time when flows in the river are near their highest. They’re working to understand how the rate of plant growth in the mountains can affect the amount of snowmelt that’s either run down to the river or stored as groundwater, and what nutrients and minerals stay put or flow with the water during this season of high water movement.

“I’m guessing that the ‘secret’ to how water resources are being affected may lie in the timing of snowmelt, as well as how grass and grass-like plants time their growth,” Steltzer says. “So we are working this year to both collect data on the timing of plant leafing and growth—and also develop a method for keeping track of unnamed plants until we can name them later in the season.”

The SFA is also investigating how floods, droughts, and other perturbations to a watershed affect downstream delivery of water, nutrients, carbon, and metals.

“In particular, we are developing new approaches to characterize and predict how fine-scale processes, such as plant responses to early snowmelt, contribute to the integrated watershed exports,” says Susan Hubbard, Berkeley Lab’s Associate Lab Director for EESA, and director of the Watershed SFA.

A beautiful day in the #science neighborhood! Mt. Crested Butte at snowmelt. #guestgrammer #mountains by @heidimountains

A post shared by American Geophysical Union (@americangeophysicalunion) on

To tackle this significant challenge, the project has assembled a multi-institutional team with a wide range of expertise.

“Heidi’s plant ecological observations and snowmelt experiments will provide critical insights about how mountainous vegetation is responding to changing environmental conditions, as well as provide key input into developing scale-aware watershed models,” Hubbard says.

How will Steltzer finish out the rest of June in Crested Butte? Keep up with her adventures by following AGU on Instagram here.