Geography & Environmental Studies students are elevating research

UCCS students are taking research to new heights.

Six students in the Department of Geography & Environmental Studies (GES) joined GES Associate Professor Brandon Vogt and MA in Applied Geography alumnus (2022) Austin Routt to conduct a kinematics survey at 12,500 feet at Gilpin Peak Rock Glacier, which is adjacent to Colorado Fourteener Mt. Sneffels. The goal is to measure annual creep rate, which refers to how quickly the mostly frozen land mass is flowing downhill.

“The creep rate is variable across the surface, and by year, and averaged just centimeters per year,” explained Vogt. “The results are used to paint a more complete picture about how the variability in rock glacier movement is tied to precipitation, temperature and stream gauge data as collected from nearby monitoring stations.”

“Rock glaciers are also important hydrological resources in some parts of the world, especially for some arid farming communities, and monitoring their motion helps us predict if these resources will be reliable in the future,” added Routt.

Routt, who is leading this research for his doctoral program from the University of Alaska, completed both his undergraduate degree in GES and graduate degree in Applied Geography from UCCS. He taught the rest of the group how to use conductivity meters (the orange rings in the first photo) to learn more about the internal structure of the rock glacier and its proportions of ice, rock and water, in addition to their usual survey methods using drones and total stations (instruments used to measure and map the rock glacier’s surface).

“Drones allow us to use photogrammetry, a more recent method that enables us to create highly accurate 3D models from thousands of overlapping photographs – basically reversing the process of flattening a 3D environment into an image like when you take a photograph,” Routt said. “The drone surveys also take place during the summer when the snow on the surface doesn’t obscure the image detail.”

Routt is looking at both pingos (ice-cored hills) and rock glaciers in his research, both of which represent understudied sources of ground ice and somewhat mysterious hydrology. Studying rock glaciers forms a core part of his geoscience Ph.D. and allows for hands-on use of techniques, like radar and geophysics, learned in his classes. He also noted that his doctoral advisor at the University of Alaska, Assistant Professor Kynan Hughson, was instrumental in this research through his support and provision of the conductivity meter.

Research on Gilpin Peak Rock Glacier is conducted over three to five days, depending on weather conditions and number of students assisting.

“A ‘day’ on the rock glacier starts at 3 a.m. and ends by noon,” Vogt said. “Getting a very early start helps avoid thunderstorms that invariably form in the early afternoon in the San Juan Mountains. This year, the North American Monsoon was in full swing, but we somehow managed to stay mostly dry!”

This is the third year this research has been conducted with students, with plans to continue in the coming years and possibly add other data collection instruments, such as ground conductivity meters and ground-penetrating radar.

“Participating in field work like this, coupled with an understanding of why the science is important to society, is priceless to students with interests in environmental change,” said Vogt. “Students work as a team, learn how to use a suite of geographical tools, and are encouraged to present parts of the research at conferences, including Mountain Lion Research Day. Getting outside, finding adventure, doing science and getting your boots dirty is a core element of experiential learning.”

About the UCCS College of Letters, Arts & Sciences

The College of Letters, Arts & Sciences at UCCS is the university’s largest college, enrolling nearly 6,000 students across 21 departments and programs. The college offers 19 majors and 53 minors in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Students can also choose from five accelerated bachelor’s and master’s degrees, nine full master’s degrees and three Ph.D. degrees, as well as pre-medical and pre-law programs. The mission of the college is to position graduates for success in their personal and professional lives, with a focus on thinking, creating and communicating — skills vital to employers and graduate and professional schools. Learn more about the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences at UCCS.