ISU Magazine

Volume 41 | Number 2 | Spring/Summer 2011

Hot and Cold

Hot & Cold

Spring 2011 Issue | By Andrew Taylor


These divergent activities, and dozens more, are part of an epic effort to study and understand the potential effects of climate change on Idaho. To study this, researchers are drilling hundreds of feet below the surface of the ground and following dust blowing thousands of feet up into the air.

Climate Change
Chinook salmon and bull trout swim out of view as an Idaho State University master's student snorkels down the East Fork of the South Fork Salmon River in the vicinity of Yellow Pine, a tiny town in central Idaho. ISU researchers throw radiotagged rocks into tributaries of the Salmon River; students relocate the rocks downstream with electronic wands to explore whether sediment transport is sensitive to floods triggered by rain or snowmelt. Another ISU graduate student, whose main focus is studying ice, films a wolf pursuing a mule deer over the snow near the banks of the Middle Fork Salmon River; the wounded deer, leaving blood on the white banks, escapes by wading into the river, waiting the predator out. An ecologist from ISU and biometeorologists and hydrologists from the University of Idaho and Boise State University team up to construct a 70-foot tall tower (higher than the surrounding lodge pole pines near the banks of the Henrys Fork Snake River near Island Park) to take accurate hydrology measurements at ground level for a 1-square-mile area.
Photos courtesy ISU Biological Sciences

The Big Picture

Central to the efforts to understand climate change in Idaho is the five-year, $15 million Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) grant "Idaho Research Infrastructure Improvement: Water Resources in a Changing Climate" that was reported in the Spring 2009 Idaho State University Magazine.

The grant has entered its third year, and its associated studies are still more about the questions, rather than the answers, to how climate change will affect Idaho. To attempt to tackle a topic of such magnitude researchers are building a new scientific infrastructure of equipment at ISU, University of Idaho and Boise State University; cooperating across disciplines and institutions on a grand scale; adding new faculty to increase expertise in this field; and offering a variety of new study and outreach programs.

"We're bringing together UI, ISU and BSU and the colleges within those institutions to answer major questions about climate change," said Colden Baxter, ISU ecology professor and the lead scientist on ecological change for the EPSCoR grant. "In terms of science and research, we're linked in ways we've never been before. Being connected is allowing us to accomplish more than we would individually."

Two Very Large Labs

To better understand climate change, researchers from Idaho's three largest public universities are primarily using two major gigantic laboratories: the highly developed and tapped Snake River Basin, and the wild and relatively pristine Salmon River Basin.

John Davis, a post-doctoral researcher with the Department of Biological Sciences, and Colden Baxter, ISU professor, sample aquatic algae and invertebrates. Researchers use pick-axes to break through the river ice to sample the aquatic organisms below. Researchers are studying the effects of ice on the winter ecology of temperate rivers, a severely understudied area of science, to inform future climate change research projects.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Blackadar

"Our community of scientists is conducting a whole set of investigations on the Snake River Plain, including studies of its hydrology, geomorphology (the study of landforms and processes that shape them), ecology and the ways in which human water use patterns interact with these processes," Baxter said.

"The Snake River Plain," he continued, "as a water resource system is unique and includes groundwater resources of great value. It is also tightly managed and highly regulated by dams. We want to know what effects climate change will have on its water supply, which has huge social and economic repercussions."

The Snake River Basin can serve as a model for highly regulated systems in other parts of the United States.

The Salmon River Basin, on the other hand, is one of the largest unregulated rivers in the lower 48 states and much of it is a wilderness area.

"There are a much different set of questions and problems in a wild basin that doesn't even have dam," Baxter said. "The Salmon River is likely to be affected by climate change in other ways, its consequences for people will be different, and the strategies for studying it are different as well."

"One of the ironies of the situation," continued Baxter, "is that the hydrology of the Salmon River Basin is probably more likely to be more directly affected by climate change than the highly-regulated Snake River."

The stories below document some of the ISU's climate change research efforts and mainly focus on efforts by ISU researchers and not the many correlated efforts from UI and BSU researchers on these studies.

Fire & Ice

Baxter jokingly refers to nicknames - "Fire" and "Ice" - for two of his graduate students working on facets of climate change impacts.

"Fire" is 23-year-old Hannah Harris, a native of Pocatello who earned her bachelor's degree from Skidmore College in New York and is now pursuing her master's degree in ecology. She's studying the potential effects of wildlife fire along South Fork Salmon River tributaries on the edge of the Frank Church Wilderness area. The tributaries include four that are in unburned areas, four that are in areas that burned in 2007 and four that burned and were affected by landslides.

"I'm working on the South Fork Salmon with the Forest Service, trying to decide how to use prescribed burns on the forest there," Harris said. "We're concerned about the impacts on wildlife and food for fish. There are endangered bull trout and Chinook salmon, and we want to preserve them, better understand the effects of wildfire on ecosystems, and inform the use of fire management in this region."

Photos courtesy of Ben Crosby

Among other things, wildfire can cause erosion that results in increased sediment in streams, which in turn can affect the amount of nutrients in the stream and other factors, including how much invertebrate life the stream supports and how suitable a stream is for salmon and other fish.

"Climate change has implications because it can change or increase the frequency of fire and that can have many impacts," Harris said.

For Harris, the highlights of her study so far have been snorkeling, watching the char and salmon swim by.

"Ice" is 24-year-old Ryan J. Blackadar, from Salmon, who earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Idaho and is now at Idaho State University. He is looking at the ecological dynamics of ice formation in Big Creek, a major tributary to the Middle Fork Salmon River, far within the boundaries of the Church Wilderness.

He's studying the interactions between river ice and aquatic organisms and also exploring the consequences of ice dynamics for terrestrial organisms. The amount of ice in the river can affect everything from the amount of algae on the stream bed to how many fish a river can support. It also sets the stage for wildlife predator-prey interactions such as between otters and fish, or even between wolves and their prey.

Blackadar has been taking winter samples of aquatic invertebrates and algae. The researchers also have digital cameras that take a pictureevery hour to collect images of river ice.

Besides helping to collect and interpreting the data on ice, he is also measuring the life forms affected by the ice.

"We're collecting organic matter samples from the stream, and making wildlife observations as well, from collecting otter scat to see what they're eating to watching predator-prey interactions," said Blackadar, a former guide on the Middle Fork Salmon.

He was one of the witnesses of the wolf chasing the deer into the stream that was mentioned above.

Top: Jeremy Hegman, a high school student from Twin Falls, left, and Dr. Keith Reinhart of Idaho State University at one of the "three towers"; this one is located near Hollister.
Photos courtesy of Matt Germino

"Winter ice studies can lead to insight into unforeseen effects of climate change, and point to future areas of research to look into," Blackadar said.

The amount of ice on the river can have major impacts.

"Whether there is ice on the river may have profound consequences for the river as an ecosystem and the array of organisms that live in or near it," Baxter said. "We're using wilderness as a window to look into this."

A Tale of Three Towers

The view is spectacular from above the lodge pole pines that cover the plateau near Island Park near the banks of the Henrys Fork of the Snake River. At least that is what ISU assistant biology professor Matt Germino said after scaling to the top of the 70-foot structure. Germino and University of Idaho water resource engineering professor Rick Allen helped build and design the tower that is equipped with sophisticated instrumentation to assist with climate change studies.

EPSCoR researchers have also built towers with the same function at a cheatgrass patch near Raft River on the Snake River Plain and in sagebrush steppe land near Hollister in the Magic Valley.

"We are measuring how the earth dissipates sunlight energy," Germino said. "We're making about as detailed of measurements possible over a very large area of the energy exchange between the atmosphere and the earth's surface. Our measurement footprint at each site is about a mile long."

These sites are examining total radiation balance, measuring how much radiation translates into heat going in to the soil and how much of it goes into the air.

"We will sum all those things up and what we're really interested in is what heat is leftover and unaccounted for - that remainder is the heat that evaporates water from the soil and plants up into the air," Germino said.

The researchers hypothesize that different vegetation types will differ in how they take sunlight energy and use it to move water from the soil to the air. For example, they expect in the area dominated by cheatgrass, water will be used quickly in the spring, but water that is deep or comes later in the year as rain won't be used. They assume that the Island Park site receives so much precipitation that the vegetation cannot use all of it and the aquifer gets recharged.

"We are linking our data that includes detailed measurements of radiation and moisture in the atmosphere, plants and soil, and linking that with some sophisticated models of water flow over the regional level," Germino added. "Ultimately our objective is to improve our ability to model water at the scale of the whole Snake River system."

Germino is also involved in a study looking at long-term data sets collected on Idaho National Laboratory lands on the Arco desert to determine how climate change may affect plant communities.

"In this study we can help answer an important ecological question of how sagebrush steppe ecosystems might respond to huge shifts in summer and winter precipitation," Germino said. "And we're using long-term data sets and interpreting them in new ways."

Rocks and Rolling

ISU researchers from the Department of Geosciences have thrown hundreds of radio-tagged rocks into small tributaries of the Salmon River. These tributaries span a range of elevations from high-elevation streams in the Sawtooth Mountains down low-elevation watersheds near Whitebird and Riggins. During return visits, the researchers use wands and surveying equipment to track how far the rocks have moved.

This is one of the novel experiments ISU researchers are undertaking to help look at what effects warming temperature could have on drainages in the Salmon River Basin. With increasing temperatures, areas now dominated by snow could become more rain-dominated in the future, according to Benjamin Crosby, an ISU Assistant Professor of Geosciences. Rain-dominated watersheds flush water out each time a storm moves through, while snow-dominated watersheds only flood in the spring and early summer when the winter's accumulated snow begins to melt.

By throwing rocks in streams and tracking their movements, the researchers are getting ideas how the frequency, duration and magnitude of high-flow events fundamentally affect characteristics of a stream. The shape of the river is sensitive to whether it experiences many small floods during the year in a rain-dominated system, or only one or two big floods in a snow-dominated system.

"There are cascading consequences of climate change," Crosby said. "Small changes in the atmosphere affect the amount of snow on a mountain slope, which affects the flood characteristics of a river, which affects the shape and stability the river, which affects organisms that live in the river.

Photos courtesy of Ben Crosby

"These changes," continued Crosby, "ultimately affect us. Idaho's economy is built around cultivation, recreation and urban development; each sector is explicitly linked to water."

One of the most direct consequences of warming is the increase in snowline elevation. Most experts and models agree that climate change will raise snowlines, whether the amount of precipitation increases or decreases. The topography of the Salmon River Basin features plateau-like surfaces, so a large percentage of its total area is near the winter snowline. Thus, even a modest rise in the snowline could have dramatic effects on the amount of annual precipitation that is retained through the winter, and is held on the landscape until spring and summer.

"The shape of topography influences that landscape's susceptibility to a changing snow line," Crosby said. "The results we've come away with are applicable to studying mountain reservoirs throughout the Intermountain West. Our techniques are equally applicable to the Bannock Range (in Idaho), the Wasatch Range (in Utah) and the Sierra Nevada (in California)."

Look Down

Bruce Finney, ISU professor of biological sciences and geosciences who is in charge of ISU's Paleoecology Laboratory, specializes in coring down into the lake bottoms, taking out sediment samples, and - similar to analyzing tree rings - interpreting layers of sediment using a sophisticated instrument called a mass spectrometer.

In a recently published study, Finney complied a 6,000-year lake record of drought from the Pacific Northwest by analyzing core samples from a lake in Washington. His study showed that in the last 1,000 years droughts are occurring less regularly in the Northwest, on 60- to 100-year intervals, compared to 30- to 60-year intervals prior.

"Human influence on the climate is going to be stronger in the future, and we're trying to help predict what changes might occur," Finney said.

He and his colleagues are wondering how climate change affects drought cycles in the research areas in Idaho where the contemporary studies described above are located. Finney and postdoctoral researcher Mark Shapley have taken core samples from a network of mountain lakes that include 10 lakes in the Salmon and Snake river basins, including Meadow Lake in the Lemhi Range and Grouse Creek Lake in the Big Lost Range.

"It's good to have a network of sites so we can accurately determine the patterns of drought both across the landscape and over time," Finney said.

To determine drought periods, Finney looks at indicators of water chemistry within the sediment samples. The dryer periods correspond with higher concentrations of elements such as in salt; wetter periods have less evaporation and samples feature lower concentrations of salt-indicators.

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A Contribution From Above

Finney emphasized, however, that sediment samples can be examined in a variety of ways. For example, he can test for pollen and charcoal in the sediment to get information on vegetation and fire history, and how the climate affected these processes. In other lakes he has tested for a nitrogen isotope that has allowed him to determine the strength of historic salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest.

Adding It All Up

These are just a sampling of the array of climate studies ISU researchers are undertaking in Idaho, not to mention studies ISU researchers are doing elsewhere, including in the Arctic Circle, that have climate change implications.

"We're bringing together climate models, hydrologic models and ecological models to try to predict the future under climate change scenarios," Baxter said. "We hope to understand present day change in the context of the truly long-term (thousands of years) dynamics of the Idaho landscape."

For more information on the grant, visit

The effort to understand climate change in Idaho, bolstered by the EPSCoR grant, has implications far beyond the Gem State's borders.

"In Idaho, we have two unique, natural laboratories for studying how water resources may change with a shifting climate," Baxter said. "At the state and regional level, we want to know what the future of the Snake and Salmon river hydrology looks like and provide information that is relevant, but just as important, we want to use these natural laboratories to contribute to climate and water resource research internationally."

To accomplish this ambitious agenda, Idaho's three largest public universities are collaborating with each other and with governmental agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological survey, Bureau of Land Management, the Idaho Department of Water Resources and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

"We're linking academic work throughout the state to governmental agencies' efforts in ways we have not done before," Baxter said. "The new theme that climate change science has demanded is that we must be more connected when we do science, with a much bigger community."