Monitoring Forests

Environmental change happens slowly and its often hard to notice. Is it unusually warm? Was runoff different 20 years ago? Were there elk at Hallam Lake in the 1950s? The only way we can answer these questions in the future is to start recording data today.

Climate change and other human activities continue to have profound impacts on natural systems. In 2017, the average temperature in Colorado was 3.3°F above normal. At first, this fact might seem easy to comprehend. When we start to dig in we realize its incredibly complex. What does 3.3°F above normal actually mean and what are the impacts to plants and wildlife?

While climate change is a global problem, the impact are local and those impacts will not be evenly distributed on the landscape. Even within a watershed, some areas will be more affected than others. Our goal is to help our community better predict and respond to climate change impacts. To do this, ACES has embarked on several monitoring projects to track local change and compare it with historic patterns. These include, monitoring streamflow, wildlife activity, forest change, and climate conditions. Below we highlight two of our current projects.

Left: The Roaring Fork River in Aspen during a typical year (August, 2016). Right: The Roaring Fork River during the 2018 drought.

Repeat Photography and Photo Monitoring

Temperature records and streamflow data can tell us a lot about how the climate has changed. But they don’t tell us about what those changes mean for the landscape. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words” (or in this case, 1000 data points). Through photography, ACES is working to track how the landscape is changing. For forests, we’re looking for changes in species composition, changes in treelike, and changes in phenology.

Stream Gauge

In the West, water is precious. Knowing how much water a river contains is important for managing human use and protecting ecosystems. In 2015, ACES began monitoring the Roaring Fork River in Aspen to understand how natural and human systems impact water flows through Aspen. This year’s measurements have been sobering. The peak flow was 81% lower than last year’s peak, and during August the river was flowing at 19% of the level deemed necessary to support a healthy river ecosystem.