On a cold November day in 2013, Jacki Klancher’s students watched Chasing Ice, a documentary chronicling the disappearance of Arctic glaciers. The Central Wyoming College students in Riverton asked Klancher if they could do a similar project. Instead of ticking off the resources needed for such an endeavor, the assistant professor of environment health thought it over.
Maybe we should, and maybe we can, Klancher said.
That began a major interdisciplinary study that takes students from various departments to the Dinwoody Glacier in the Wind River Mountains. The students receive unusual undergraduate field training, alongside faculty and professionals, while gathering data used by agencies and scientists.
The project started in summer 2014 and will run at least three years — more if the college can secure more money. The project is funded through a variety of grants and partnerships allowing students to work with professionals and get paid for their field work. This includes testing water quality, tracking glacier recession and measuring black carbon.
Scientists already know the Dinwoody Glacier is receding, so there was no need to examine if it is shrinking. Instead, students are studying the impact the diminishing glacier is having in the ecosystem, specifically looking at water in the Dinwoody area. “Water — water quality and quantity — is at the core of our research,” Klancher said.
Students studied macroinvertebrates in Dinwoody Creek. They gathered baseline data this summer to see if their findings change next year and in the future as the glacier continues to shrink. They are also measuring how much water is in the area and if that changes over time by documenting exposed bedrock.
They also field-tested water samples for E. coli to see if the heavy recreational use of the Dinwoody Cirque contaminates the water. (They were wrong in their guess they would find E.coli. Tests showed there wasn’t a spike of the bacteria in the water). While some studies have shown global warming to impact the prevalence of E. coli, the study also taught students to test the water in the field — it would take too long to get the water out of the mountains and to a lab.
Another team is mapping part of Dinwoody Glacier and measuring its depth using ground-penetrating radar. Data is sent to the University of North Dakota to tie into a graduate student’s thesis project on establishing ice ratings. Working with Carl Schmitt from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, students are also measuring black carbon which can increase glacial snowmelt — something that hadn’t been studied in the Wind River Mountains until now, Klancher said.
This summer, the interdisciplinary project added a new facet: archaeology.
Todd Guenther, a professor of anthropology at Central Wyoming College, and several of his students found artifacts dating back thousands of years and discovered what could be a buffalo jump at 11,000 feet. If confirmed, it will be the highest-known jump in Wyoming by more than 3,000 feet.
“It changes our understanding of how prehistoric people survived in the high country,” Guenther said. It wasn’t just one person roaming the mountains with a spear, but actual groups hunting together.
The students are part of the entire process, from securing grants, to writing up results, said Darran Wells, an associate professor of outdoor education and leadership. Its rare for undergraduate students at a community college to conduct scientific research in such a remote area, pulling together the outdoor and science skills they’ve learned.
“This just isn’t something you see yet in education,” Wells said. Central Wyoming College is uniquely poised to offer the experience. It’s small and based near the Wind River Mountains. It has a strong working rapport with agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and a staff experienced in leading outdoor expeditions. Students learn to use technology for research, and also how to conduct a research project in the elements.
“It’s rigorous,” Guenther said. “We’re living and working at 10,000 feet.”
Wells’ outdoors leadership courses teach students mountaineering skills, like how to stop themselves when sliding down an ice- or snow-covered slope, and to navigate in the backcountry. Most of the students participating in the project took classes from Wells and were already experienced with backcountry travel.
Klancher would like to expand the project throughout the Wind River Mountain range to see if data gathered at other sites matches what they found at the Dinwoody Glacier. They also want to source the black carbon found in the glacier and compare it to other samples from across the country.
While the primary purpose of the project is to teach students, the data they are collecting is valuable. Not only will it aid scientists and land managers, it also yields important data for those who live in the Wind River area.
“This is big stuff,” Guenther said. “It’s not just empty academic research teaching kids how to measure what’s in the water.”
Guenther lives on a ranch outside Lander. An irrigation ditch that’s supplied water for more than 100 years ran dry for the first time in August. When ranchers can’t get enough water to irrigate it creates major economic and social changes.
“This ought to make people sit up and say ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to survive in the Wind River Basin?’” Guenther said. “It’s not going to happen in 2050, it’s happening now.”