Follow EcoPress on Twitter

“Like” NREL EcoPress

Graduate Student highlights: 5 Questions with Caitlin Charlton

This is part 2 of 5 highlights of NREL grad students who do research in National Parks. Hear from NREL/ GDPE grad student Caitlin Charlton, who is working in Rocky Mountain, Sequoia and King’s Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks as part of her MS Research!

Caitlin Charlton
 Pear Lake in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

Q1: Can you tell us about your research in a few sentences? 

A: I am studying how mountain lake productivity has changed over time in the Sierra Nevada (CA) by analyzing algal pigments in lake sediment cores and relating it to changes in climate, nutrient deposition and landscape characteristics. In conjunction with the temporal change in productivity, I am also evaluating current spatial trends in Sierra Nevada lake productivity in comparison to contemporary water chemistry data, climate data and nutrient deposition patterns. 

I also have started work to quantify benthic algal productivity in the Loch and Sky Pond in RMNP by evaluating underwater imagery and benthic algal samples analyzed for chlorophyll. The benthic data will be paired with satellite imagery to further develop a remote sensing tool that can monitor mountain lake productivity (hopefully & ultimately) in mountain ranges all over the world. 

Q2: Favorite part of what you do?

A: Definitely fieldwork! I love seeing the Loch & Sky Pond go through all 4 seasons, and getting out onto our Alpacka rafts on the lakes is a spectacular experience. I really enjoy doing research that can help us better understand how our beloved national parks are being impacted by different global change factors. The opportunity to do research that can help protect our wild mountain spaces can’t be beat!

Q3: Was this spring/summer weird because of COVID and how so?

A: It actually ended up being a really amazing experience. Tim Weinmann, Jill Baron and I were the only non-RMNP personnel allowed in the park until the end of May. It was incredible seeing the Loch and Sky Pond without the typical swarms of people and see the watershed change from winter-spring-early summer in solitude.

Q4: Craziest field story?

A: October 29, 2019 Tim & I were up at the Loch during a winter storm warning when temperatures with wind chill were definitely below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. We were the first people walking up the trail from all the fresh snow the previous night, hiking in heavy snow all day (couldn’t even see across the Loch) and were consistently in snow up above our knees with snowshoes on (and stepping into waist deep snowdrifts). Tim’s beard completely froze with icicles, and I think it was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life, but it still a wild type-2-fun field experience! 

Q5: How will this research save the world?

Mountain ecosystems are very sensitive and are often the first to experience pronounced impacts from global change. It allows us to see very direct effects of encroaching human influence on systems that formerly experienced very little anthropogenic impacts, and understand how humans are altering the natural environment against a relatively un-impacted background. Mountain lakes are also headwater systems, and by studying how mountain lake productivity and water quality is changing, we are taking action to protect one of our critical water resources and downstream ecosystems.