The Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) is the oldest research institute at the University of Colorado. It studies the connectivity of cold desert ecosystems, like the ones found on Rocky Mountain peaks. INSTAAR was one of the country's first prominent ecological research programs and found early success in the mid-twentieth century. Since the mid-1970s, INSTAAR has shifted its mission to study how climate change affects the high-altitude tundra and how these seemingly small changes in Colorado may affect similar ecosystems globally.
The idea for an alpine research organization was devised in 1946 when John Marr, professor of biology at the University of Colorado, took a group of students to the school’s Science Lodge on Niwot Ridge, near the Indian Peaks west of Boulder, to study winter plant ecology. While eating sandwiches and discussing dwarven plants, Marr and his students were overcome by a blizzard. The stormy picnic inspired Marr and his students to establish measurement stations around the lodge to record wild weather fluctuations and to gather more data about the alpine tundra. INSTAAR was born.
From the outset, INSTAAR was concerned with the global connectivity of tundra environments but had difficulty fulfilling its mission due to constant budget constraints. John Marr and his team aimed to record data in both Colorado and the Canadian Arctic, where he previously studied tree distribution and soil composition. But the institute could only get enough cash for a seasonal stint in Ungava Bay in Nunavut, Canada, in 1948. As he struggled to find funding for longer Arctic research trips, Marr insisted that the team could facilitate near-identical studies in Colorado, where high alpine tundra ecosystems mirrored Arctic conditions.
Neither CU nor the federal government was interested in funding a new biological database to survey conditions in Niwot because the research had no immediate promise of profit or Cold War-era military application. In response to the government’s data priorities, Marr advertised his program as an opportunity for the Army’s Quartermaster General office to test cold weather equipment. The Quartermaster General office took the bait and funded Marr’s alpine ecology field research on the condition that he and his students test military gear, such as coats, gloves, and even tank-like vehicles, while they collected data.
The Institute of Arctic and Alpine Ecology was officially formed in 1951 (the catchy acronym INSTAAR was not adopted until the mid-1960s). Within the year, Marr and his students established sixteen Environmental Analysis Stations around Niwot Ridge, at elevations ranging from 5,500 to 13,000 feet.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, INSTAAR began to garner a reputation for its local accessibility, wide-ranging interdisciplinary research, and educational fieldwork opportunities. Meanwhile, Marr’s students conducted research of their own. Beatrice Willard, a student of Marr’s in the late 1950s, was among the first to study sensitive alpine tundra environments along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Shift in Focus
The 1960s and early 1970s marked a shift in the University of Colorado’s emphasis on scientific research. In 1967 CU geography professor Jack Ives, former director of the Sub-Arctic Research Laboratory at McGill University in Québec, Canada, took on Marr’s position at INSTAAR. CU hired Ives as a way to attract other world-renowned cold temperature researchers and expand CU’s growing reputation as a scientific research behemoth. Ives took full advantage of the university’s renewed investment by finally cosigning yearly research trips to Baffin Island and Labrador in the Canadian Arctic. This solidified a permanent polar presence for the institution.
Ives not only stretched INSTAAR’s geographic range but also helped make a compelling case for why Colorado’s ecology mattered globally. INSTAAR’s two-decade history of long-term ecological research in the alpine tundra earned Niwot Ridge a tundra biome site designation for the International Biological Program (IBP) in 1971. The program collected data about ecosystems around the world to understand how they might interact with one another on a global scale.
The 1960s also saw INSTAAR’s first major project emphasizing the functional application of tundra research for state and national interests. In 1969 INSTAAR partnered with Colorado State University (CSU) to research the effects of cloud seeding in the San Juan Mountains. The Bureau of Reclamation funded the study and assessed how animals and plants reacted to higher precipitation and delayed snowmelt, in addition to how the active trigger chemical in seeding—iodide, toxic to both animals and humans—affected those life systems. CSU focused on collecting data on forest ecosystems, while INSTAAR tackled similar research in the alpine tundra.
The operation's goal was to build on previously successful cloud-seeding experiments toward adding more water to the Upper Colorado River Basin. The bureau hoped that weather modification would be the ultimate step in reconfiguring the western landscape against the threat of drought and the region’s growing population. INSTAAR and CSU took on this initiative despite knowing that the experiments might elevate levels of silver iodide in the Basin. The data ultimately reflected this worst-case scenario, and the program was shut down when toxicity in the region increased.
INSTAAR’s work with CSU on the cloud seeding project demonstrated that it could successfully collaborate with other institutions. This led to an additional research partnership with the University of Washington, and the Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Labs in New Hampshire focused on avalanche research. These seven years brought considerable fame to INSTAAR in the academic community while highlighting additional applications of its tundra research.
Role of Climate Change
Since the 1970s, INSTAAR has increasingly focused on atmospheric research and the impact of climate change. This was partly thanks to an invigorated environmental movement and increasing recognition of ecology’s role in human health and wellbeing. In response to this movement, the federal government launched the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) initiative, which awarded funding to long-term data-collection projects. The National Science Foundation began searching for sites in 1978, and by 1980 Niwot Ridge became one of the first locations to receive an LTER designation.
In 1992 the University of Colorado, in partnership with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), was awarded a second LTER site in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. INSTAAR’s inclusion in the LTER signaled a shift from national security applications to the scientific investigation of the effects of climate change.
Much of the USGS’s work in Antarctica involved drilling for ice cores to study biological and environmental conditions. The INSTAAR-USGS partnership in Antarctica culminated in the creation of the National Ice Core Lab in 1993. This was housed in the USGS federal center in Denver and administered by INSTAAR. The goal of the Ice Core Lab is to collect, house, and distribute ice cores. Management of the lab has since been transferred from INSTAAR to the University of New Hampshire. Studying ice cores helps researchers understand historic chemical fluctuations in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide levels, providing insight into today’s atmospheric composition.
Since the 1980s, INSTAAR has pioneered several landmark observations and models regarding tundra and polar science. The Niwot LTER, for instance, has determined that the tundra is becoming incrementally wetter and has created several models articulating carbon and nitrogen cycling in the tundra. Researchers at the McMurdo site have studied how changing stream flows due to climate change have affected delicate microbial environments. In 2012 the INSTAAR team in Antarctica also worked with NASA to study microbiology in the context of climate change and potential extraterrestrial organisms. Research in both regions is ongoing and has been a critical resource for other federal scientific agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and other organizations.
INSTAAR’s decades of ecological research have helped scientists understand how global environments are connected. INSTAAR continues to advance this mission, making its work more accessible to the public through educational programs at Mountain Research Station and other trips that invite students into the field. INSTAAR has played an instrumental role in working to help Colorado scientists and communities understand how to mitigate and prepare for the effects of climate change.