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Earth Notes: Bedrock-to-Mountain Observatory

Ken Williams

Most of the Colorado River’s water comes from mountain snowmelt. But mountain weather is hard to predict, and year to year it’s unknown how much water will be available and when.

That’s why the Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory set up an observatory in the town of Gothic, Colorado. It’s known as the Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory, or SAIL. It has more than thirty instruments to measure rain, snow, clouds, winds, temperature, humidity, and other factors that make up the local weather. Taken together, these measurements will reveal the complex sources of the water that serves forty million people in the Colorado River Basin.

At its simplest, mountains catch clouds on their peaks, draw down moisture as rain or snow, which then trickles into creeks and rivers and eventually soaks into the bedrock. But this journey from sky to stone is not well understood. Those processes are also changing as the global climate heats up, with more snow falling as rain, fiercer wildfires, and shifting weather patterns.

Much like a rover on another planet, SAIL is made up of cameras, weather stations, lasers, thermometers, and other kinds of investigation tools. It’s also got a team of geologists, hydrologists, and atmospheric physicists, working together to create a holistic picture of the water cycle. Scientists remain on staff at the remote mountain site 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Their work will continue through the summer of 2023. It’s a first-of-its-kind experiment to understand the Southwest’s most precious resource

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.