Countless Aspenites who’ve made the wildflower-spotting pilgrimage over West Maroon Pass to Crested Butte have passed through the historic mining settlement at Gothic, and seen the “Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory” sign affixed to a wooden fence.
Many have likely wondered what goes on in there. A few dozen locals found out Thursday night, as Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) president Ian Billick outlined recent findings, in a presentation at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
Billick, who first came to Gothic in 1988, reported that the mountain lab’s recent studies shed light on how climate change is affecting mountain ecosystems and the rest of the world. The life cycles of everything from butterflies to wildflowers are changing.
How those changes impact natural life on Earth, he argued, is vital to much more than mountain scenery and colorful hiking.
“If you like to drink water, if you like to eat food and you like to breathe air, then you probably ought to care about this,” he said.
In his hour-long presentation Thursday, Billick outlined a mounting number of findings from Gothic that demonstrate that climate change is impacting the ecology of the Rocky Mountains.
Along with up to 40 visiting biologists every summer at the lab, observations by amateur naturalists have played a key role in the lab’s work. Billy Barr, who he called “a local hermit,” has been recording data on snowmelt in the Gothic area since the early 1970s.
That data has led to scientific projections that snow will disappear six weeks earlier than it does now by 2040.
The earlier disappearance of snow cover, which serves as a springtime alarm clock for plants to wake up and bloom, already is the source of widespread ecological disturbance.
Butterflies, research at RMBL has indicated, are among the hardest hit by earlier snowmelt.
Population growth has sharply declined among the colorful Mormon fritillary butterfly since 1980. Looking at the species near RMBL, scientists David Inouye and Carol Boggs discovered that the butterflies laid disproportionately low numbers of eggs in the year after an early snowmelt.
They then found that the early springtime is leading to less nectar in the wildflowers that serve as the butterfly’s main food source, and therefore lower birth rates.
When Inouye was awarded federal stimulus funds to conduct the wildflower studies at RMBL, he became a national whipping boy for critics of allegedly pork-laden post-recession spending. Billick joked about the day he began fielding phone calls from Sean Hannity and conservative pundits from Fox News about the research.
While some may scoff at using taxpayer dollars for the kind of work Billick and visiting scientists do at Gothic, he argued that place-based research — and the kind of findings he outlined on Thursday — are integral to understanding the natural world and how it is changing.
He described each of the discoveries among visiting scientists as “individual threads.”
“What RMBL does is it allows us to weave those threads into a tapestry to understand the world we live in,” Billick said.
Spruce-fir habitat in the Gunnison basin, one scientist found, is on its way to a 50 percent decrease by 2060, from the area it covered 1961 to 1990.
Bee surveys around Gothic since the early 1970s show that their habitat has moved up in elevation by as much as 200 feet in less than 40 years. Like much of the change in the area, it results from the early spring.
“The fact that the bees are moving up is consistent with data that the snowmelt is coming earlier,” he said.
A similar move among the local mosquito population has been observed by other visiting scientists. One species of mosquito, which is a vector for West Nile Virus, was observed in Crested Butte for the first time in recent years. Historically, it had only hatched in the lower elevations of Gunnison.
Scientists at RMBL also have experimented with heating up soil in the area, attempting to recreate the conditions of expected future higher temperatures. Those experiments, Billick said, show that drier soil will make it harder for the area’s signature wildflowers to bloom. It will favor woody species — like sage brush — and cause more of that to proliferate in the area.
“Particularly wildflowers that have shallow roots,” he said. “They’re not going to be doing well.”