Sunday, August 31, 2008

High Altitude: are my brain cells dying or just on vacation?

After a full week an an official J-school student, it's time for an update.

I'm coming to you live(ish) from the Leeds School of Business at CU. I got a tip from a librarian that the Business Library is the nicest place to study on campus, adn somewhat of an undiscovered secret. Unfortunately, this nice, new building is so difficult to navigate (despite all the computer kiosks welcoming me) that I haven't found the library yet, and am instead camped out in the cafe/lounge area in the basement.

The Leeds School is the only building on campus where I've seen dual flush toilets (up for liquids, down for solids), but it is also the only building on campus where I haven't seen rows upon rows of bikes out front. There aren't even bike racks, just towers that look an ashtray mated with bike rack and produced a runt.

Anyway, so here I am, because my house (trailer/pre-fab home/whatever you choose to call it...) doesn't have internet yet. And I'm thinking it may be best to keep it that way. After spending a year working at a job where I pretty much had the internet plugged into my head, may a separation of feed and brain will be a good thing. (Although journalists need to be constantly up on what's happening, don't they? Hmmm...I'm sure I'll find a way to sort this out.)

So, back to my life in Boulder. I'll spare you a boring recap of my first week of classes (because there are few things more boring than being someone not in a class listening to someone talking about a class, don't you think?) and instead tell you that I've spent the past two days at high altitude--that's 11,500+ feet. I'm still wrapping my head around the fact that walking down a sidewalk here the air is nearly as thin as it is at Timberline Lodge, so hanging out over a thousand feet above the summit of Mt. Hood threw me for an even more tangled loop.

On Friday I went on a fielt trip with the Center for Environmental Journalism's Scripps Fellows to the University of Colorado's Mountain Research Station on Niwot Ridge. Here's a satellite image of the station via Google Maps:

That small white maggot-sized spot in the middle of the screen is the bunker--er, research station--we hiked to at 11,500 ft. Here's the same area, zoomed out a little bit, as a topographic map:

I don't even have to tell you that it was beautiful. Instead, I'll tell you how educational it was! (Sorry, I am, after all, still a student and a nerd, so bear with me...) We learned all about alpine ecosystems and the types of studies that are being conducted there. A group from UC Merced is studying how rising temperature affects alpine plants, and so is heating swaths of land with infrared heaters. There are also all sorts of nitrogen deposition, snow, and atmosphere composition studies being done up there, including CO2 monitoring that has been done continuously since the 1960s (using a lot of the same equipment today as it did then).

Another highlight was the "Gee Whiz" tree, where researchers mark the height of the snowpack each year on the trunk of a very tired, windblown fir. The snow level has been entirely above the tree, not even reached its roots, and everything in between. That one artifact illustrated a very important point about alpine ecosystems, which is that they fluctuate so much from year to year, season to season, day to day, and yes, even hour to hour (which is why an early start is essential--weather can go from sunny and warm to lightning and hail in a matter of minutes, espeically in the early afternoon). In an ecosystem that is in such flux, it is difficult to study long term trends, like the effects of climate change.

My favorite parts of the trip were the krummholz (fron the German for "crooked trees"), which are gnarled, stunted, often ancient trees that are kept small and mangled by the wind. It's kind of a natural version of a bonsai trees, only krummholz migrate in the prevailing downwind direction. Each year, the wind kills off the part of the tree that is in the direct line of fire, and the tree sends out new shoots and roots in the direction that is sheltered from the gusts. Over decades, the trees actually wander across the alpine landscape constantly trying to outrun the wind but never suceeding. It totally hit me in my poetic gut.

Oh no, I'm reaching that point in my post where my stamina is flagging, which means that as readers, you've probably all abondoned me about four paragraphs ago. So, I will end this post pre-maturely, with a promise that part two in this high altitude saga (if I ever get there...) about my visit to the Rocky Mountain National Park (and maybe about twittering Obama's acceptance speech at the DNC from a bar in Boulder?) will contain a snazzy slideshow. It also may or may not contain an anecdote about me almost a gift shop...what a wuss, I know...


Anonymous said...

jordan, are you in grad school? or are you still working as a journalist?
Alice from MIT bball

Jordan said...

Hi Alice! Yes, I'm a lowly grad student. It's been really fun so far, though. I'm at University of Colorado at Boulder, which is probably one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It's also an excellent place to work on environmental writing, because there are so many cool research centers and unique natural resource issues out here.

Feel free to come visit if you are ever in the area. And go Beavers! (I mean engineers...ha.) Let me know how your season goes. You'll be a senior this year, right?


Anonymous said...

I know lots of cool people from Colorado, and now you're there too!

And I know, I"m a senior! Eek! Season should be good. The new coach gave us a super-structured pre-season workout.

Are you studying on environmental writing in grad school, or something related to course 16, or a combination, or something else entirely? Just curious. :)

Do you like how we're having this conversation on your blog?