Experience to help CMC contingent develop climate model

This article first appeared in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on July 2, 2011. By John Stroud.

From left, Dr. Ian Miller, Jim Wilson, and Jeff Pigati observe as the crew collects samples at the Ziegler Reservoir site in late May. Photo courtesy Denver Museum of Nature and Science

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado — Sandy Jackson’s career teaching archaeology has taken her throughout the southwestern United States on various field expeditions looking for human artifacts that are maybe several hundred years old.

But nothing could have prepared her for the experience of being part of the ice age fossil excavation project near Snowmass Village.“You can say I drank the bone juice,” the Glenwood Springs resident and long-time Colorado Mountain College archaeology and anthropology instructor said after her week-long volunteer stint helping at the site last month.“It’s hard to describe what it’s like to see that shiny reflection of a bone, then picking up what was part of a living animal that may be as much as 100,000 years old,” Jackson said.
Jackson, along with her husband and fellow CMC instructor Jim Campbell and Glenwood Springs veterinarian Ron Carsten, also a CMC instructor, were among 15 Roaring Fork Valley educators selected to volunteer at the site for a week at a time during June.“This was a once-in-a-century opportunity,” said Campbell, who teaches ecology and environmental science at the college. “A site like this just doesn’t appear very often.”Added Carsten, “I never thought I’d enjoy digging dirt for seven hours a day. It was very intriguing for me, partly for all the things we were able to find and experience, but also for the different people I met at the site who really added to the joy of the experience.”
Let’s talk science

The educator volunteer corps is one of the many volunteer programs offered by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which has been overseeing the fossil dig since the first discovery of a mastodon bone last fall.

“One of our core mission goals is to communicate science in any way we can,” said Dr. Ian Miller, curator of paleontology for the museum.

Miller was one of the lead scientists on the Snowmass project, which wrapped up on Friday to make way for resumed construction on the Ziegler Reservoir dam next week.

“Part of our job is to conduct outreach and train teachers to go out and teach science as loudly as possible,” he said. “We essentially deputize them to be our local communicators about this project.”

Out of 55 initial applicants, 15 teachers from Aspen to Rifle were chosen to take part in the program, Miller said.

Six of those teachers were from Garfield County, including the CMC contingent. Joining them were Trent Backich from Riverside Middle School in New Castle, Diana Buirgy from Coal Ridge High School in Silt, and Alice Steindler from Rifle High School.

“We have them out there digging just like anyone else, even though they’re not formally trained,” Miller said of the teacher volunteer corps. “They dig as hard as anyone else, and I think everyone involved has found fossils, so they really do get to share in this discovery.”

Into the classroom

In selecting the participating teachers, Miller said the museum looked at their different ideas for sharing the experience with their students.

“We really wanted them to articulate to us how they intended to get the message out,” he said. “We picked the people with the best ideas, and this group far exceeded anyone’s expectations.”

Jackson and Campbell intend to use the information they gathered during the expedition to develop a long-term climate model for high elevations.

“The data about our ecosystems in this region that is coming out of this is just fascinating,” Jackson said. “It gives us a peek into how ecosystems have changed over time.

“That’s a very important part of anthropology and archaeology,” she said. “Do we as humans just adapt to our environment, or do we adapt to the environment to fit our needs?”

The Snowmass Village site is unique for the many different layers of deposits, Campbell said.

“It’s sequential enough that we can take a look at the pollen and get an idea of what kind of vegetation was around,” he said. “From that we can get a sense of the warmer and cooler periods and the different glacial episodes.”

Organic material 100,000 years old

One of Campbell’s first finds at the site was a rib bone from a mastodon. That was followed by his prize find, a five-foot-long, foot-and-a-half-wide humerus bone, also from a mastodon.

“It was absolutely complete, and probably weighed over 200 pounds,” he said. “That’s the other remarkable thing, is the state of preservation of the fossils they were finding. There were even pieces of twigs that looked like they had dropped out of trees last week.”

Carsten, who teaches human anatomy and physiology at CMC, describes similar sights, and even smells.

“Some of the wood pieces were clearly recognizable,” he said. “The peat down at the bottom even still had that smell of organic matter, and we’re talking something that’s 100,000 or so years old.”

Carsten recently took a hiatus from his veterinary practice at Birch Tree Animal Hospital to work on his doctorate degree at Colorado State University. One focus of his studies has been DNA sequencing, and how specimens can be studied over long periods of time to determine how climate changes affected them.

“This experience will fit in well with what I’m teaching at CMC,” he said. “So much information is coming out of this site, and the project team has really done a great job of bringing together the experts to look at all the different aspects of the site.”

The trio of CMC instructors will be putting their heads together to present the information they learned through public lectures and other educational presentations.

For more coverage of the Snowmass dig and CMC professor Sandy Jackson’s experience, click the link to read a great piece on Live Science’s blog.