I recently received a request from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to tell them about a collaboration that started at a conference that led to an exciting new discovery, or to a new way of thinking about questions. AAAS is compiling such stories from scientists to illustrate the importance of face-to-face meetings that take place at scientific and technical conferences. I immediately thought of MtnClim, the small homegrown research conferences that are dedicated to mountain climate sciences and effects of climate variability on ecosystems, natural resources, and conservation in western North American mountains. MtnClim is sponsored by the Consortium for Integrated Climate Research on Western Mountains (CIRMOUNT), and is the brainchild of Connie Millar, for whom I am pinch-hitting this month for the North American blog. MtnClim meetings, held every two years, are small intimate meetings attended by a passionate crowd of mountain scientists.
In 2012, at the suggestion of Kelly Redmond, there was a special session on mountain lakes, where I met, for the very first time, Sudeep Chandra (University of Nevada – Reno) and David Porinchu (University of Georgia). Chandra, a freshwater scientist, conducts studies related to the restoration or conservation of aquatic ecosystems, especially as related to food webs of large mountain lakes including Lake Tahoe and Castle Lake in the US, and Lake Hovsgol in Mongolia. Porinchu is a geographer who uses proxies from alpine lake sediment cores to reconstruct long-term and recent patterns of climate change in the Intermountain West. The oxygen isotopes of fossil midges whose head capsules are preserved in sediments, in particular, tell a story of the climates of the West in the past during glacial and interglacial periods, and now serve witness to climate change taking place in mountains today.
What ties us together? A love of mountain lakes, a burning curiosity to learn their responses to past and current global changes, a desire to use science to support resource management, and perhaps most important, an enthusiasm for sharing information, knowledge, and experience in order to gain greater understanding. Listening to their talks at MtnClim, and later sharing a beer with them, I felt as though I had discovered kindred souls. Here were scientists who spoke my language! Here were scientists who could at least help define the questions related to changing alpine and subalpine lakes.
Have our collaborations borne fruit in the form of scientific discovery? Hardly – we are in the early overture phase of what I hope will become a lasting professional relationship. But we are giving and sharing advice, data, and ideas. We are voicing our research questions to each other, not keeping them close for fear of getting “scooped.” Our students benefit from having a broader pool of experts to call upon.
And that is how it starts – some exciting talks, a few beers, trust and a shared love and curiosity about mountain lakes. Are face-to-face conferences about mountains and their secrets valuable? You bet they are.