Crustal Geophysics and Geochemistry Science Center

Handcart Gulch — Integrated Headwaters Research on Hydrogeologic and Geochemical Processes and Monitoring of Environmental Change

Future Research and Monitoring – Integrating Climate Change and the Hydrologic Cycle in Intermountain West

Headwater environments are exceptionally sensitive to climate change, as evidenced by the rapid recession of alpine glaciers and massive forest degradation in North America during the past 50 years. Headwaters are also the primary source of surface and groundwaters, and a variety of nutrients that ecosystems, human populations, agriculture and industry all depend on for sustainability in the increasingly arid regions of the intermountain west. Yet the processes and rates of climate change induced degradation to these interdependent systems are poorly documented and poorly understood. Therefore, headwater regions are critical locations to conduct multidisciplinary research and monitoring of near-surface processes to identify short-term (years to decades) impacts of climate change and its variability. Currently, an outstanding foundation for such work exists in three established research sites located along the Continental Divide in Loch Vale, Niwot Ridge, and Handcart Gulch Colorado. These sites are representative of much of the variability of intermountain west headwaters regions and host significant tracts of National Forest, Wilderness, and Rocky Mountain National Park critical to habitat and water conservation. Yet these sites are not fully integrated nor do they have complete instrumentation to fulfill this opportunity. We propose the integration of the following research and monitoring by USGS and University ecologists, hydrologists, geologists, and climatologists: A) Compile all existing data from the sites in a relational database to identify data gaps and needs and allow accessibility to researchers, decision and policy makers. B) Measure and monitor basic ecological, meteorological, hydrological, and geological, and cryological processes and controls on surface and groundwater quantity, quality, and ecosystem health. Each site currently has partially established meteorological stations, stream gages, monitoring wells, water quality data, ecosystem inventories, glacier footprint data, and numerous types of maps. C) Using a variety of computer models and system analytical tools, we will integrate the data from each site and collect new and more complete datasets over the next 5 to 7 years to address key research and monitoring questions such as 1) How do changes in snowpack-the primary source of precipitation in headwater settings-inclusive of quantity, temporal and spatial distribution, and timing of melting, effect movement of water to stream and ground water systems? How will these changes alter surface and groundwater quantity and quality in sensitive headwater settings and how might those changes propagate to regional systems? 2) Will changes in precipitation lead to lowering of regional watertables and the critical support of baseflow in alpine, foothill, and plains settings? 3) How do seasonal and annual climate variations affect weathering rates and in turn solute fluxes and stream sediment loads from headwater ecosystems to lower basin ecosystems? 4) Will accelerated warming increase the rate of the disappearance of the last alpine glaciers and mass movements of features such as rock glaciers that may pose a variety of geologic hazards? 5) How will climate change affect nitrogen, carbon, and other biogeochemical cycles and fluxes? These data, evolving knowledge from its integration, and the development of climate change adaptation strategies will be disseminated to the public and scientific community through the internet accessible database, interactive maps, timely USGS Scientific Investigation Reports, scientific journal articles, and field-based interactive presentations tailored to a variety of stakeholders directly from researchers in the field.

Figure 17. Location map of established headwaters research sites - click on image for large version.

Figure 17: Location maps of established headwaters research sites along the Continental Divide of the Southern Rocky Mountains. A) Major population centers in Colorado within the Upper Platte River drainage basin. B) Major rivers and reservoirs that depend on headwaters hydrologic cycle processes. [Click on image for large version.]

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