Boulder is host to a veritable alphabet soup of environmental centers and institutes focused on studying how the climate is changing.
Consider NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, both studying climate and weather. Their climatologists collect extensive weather data to help understand how the climate is changing and how its effects might be mitigated.
There’s NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, home of the world’s most accurate atomic clock.
Boulder is also home to NSIDC, the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which studies the cryosphere, the frozen places of our planet that influence the entire world’s climate.
If mankind is ever going to slow climate change, the first stop could very well be Boulder.
The Silicon Valley of Environmental Sciences
“Boulder represents the convergence of government and academic investment, intellect and environmental consciousness all in one city. We collaborate with a number of other organizations, including the approximately 1,000 researchers at NOAA, all working to advance the environmental sciences,” says Waleed Abdalati, professor of geography and executive director of another yet another anacronym: CIRES, the Cooperative Institute for Research In Environmental Sciences, a partnership based at the University of Colorado Boulder.
He considers Boulder the Silicon Valley of Environmental Sciences, adding that
CU is the No. 2 geoscience university in the world, according to U.S. News & World Report 2021 Best Global Universities standings.
“We’re successful in securing government and other funding to help us understand the environment. The opportunities to collaborate here are tremendous and we can really tackle environmental science, climate science and climate change in a coordinated and robust way in all its dimensions – physical, human, chemical, policy.
“I don’t think there’s any place quite like it in the country that has such a powerful capability,” Abdalati says.
One big reason Boulder is such a hub for climate science and activism? It’s beautiful here, says former Boulder mayor Suzanne Jones, now executive director of the nonprofit EcoCycle which is dedicated to building a zero-waste community.
“Boulder is blessed as an amazingly beautiful place to live,” she says. “It fosters a sense of stewardship with CU and a dozen federal laboratories that are conducting cutting-edge climate and environmental research. We are also known for our very informed and engaged public and a plethora of nonprofits in conservation and sustainability all doing their part to protect the planet.”
EcoCycle is one of the oldest and largest nonprofit recyclers in the country. The organization started in 1976 when it sent a repurposed school bus around neighborhoods to collect newspapers for recycling, one of the first curbside collection programs in the U.S.
“The group has played a pivotal role in innovating and demonstrating how we can live more sustainably on the planet,” Jones says.
Today, EcoCycle is collecting and processing over 60,000 tons of recyclables every year, the greenhouse gas equivalent of annually taking 53,000 cars off the road.
Home to Extreme Elements
Ulyana Horodyskyj, Ph.D., a geologist/glaciologist/climate change expert, has dedicated her career to educating the public about science, in particular, issues concerning the climate. She is an associate scientist for the North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center that supports tribal, federal, state and local natural resource management and decision-making.
“Because Boulder is in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, it’s a unique area of the country that experiences so many weather phenomena,” she says. “This makes it such a unique natural laboratory for study. You have wildfires, devastating floods, tornadoes in the nearby plains, damaging hail, blizzards and severe drought.
“All we’re missing are damaging earthquakes and hurricanes,” she jokes. “But the benefits are, we can experience an up-close and personal look at how these extreme elements are affecting us all.”
See for Yourself
To understand Boulder’s climate prowess firsthand, your first stop should be the Museum of Boulder for a fascinating look at the city’s role in climate research. With roots dating back to 1944, the museum has accumulated a significant collection of artifacts, documents and photographs that chronicle the history of the area. Inside, you’ll see how Boulder has been a hub for cutting-edge scientific research — from government laboratories to university partnerships to private technology companies.
The abundance of scientists and engineers in and around Boulder helps create a unique and vibrant culture of intellectual curiosity and achievement, according to one museum display.
Don’t miss the “Science on a Sphere Explorer,” an interactive display that shows real-time climate data from NOAA.
The museum, located in a former Masonic Lodge building, also offers a spectacular rooftop view of the Flatirons, the striking, slanted, reddish-brown sandstone formations that make up a portion of Boulder’s foothills on the west side of town, making it a favorite location for private functions.
The museum has been open during the pandemic, but it’s best to check before arrival.
South of the city, on a hilltop surrounded by hiking trails, is the NCAR Mesa Laboratory devoted to further research and education in atmospheric sciences. Drawing inspiration from Anasazi cliff dwellings and echoing the pinkish hue of the nearby Flatirons, the iconic I.M. Pei complex is an international landmark. Movie buffs will also recognize the Mesa Lab as a filming location for the classic 1973 Woody Allen sci-fi spoof “Sleeper.”
At the Mesa Lab Visitor Center you can explore hands-on exhibits about weather, climate, the sun, the atmosphere and the relationship between art and science. Learn about cloud formation, lightning and tornadoes. While the Visitor Center has been closed during the pandemic, it’s expected to re-open in 2022. Until then, you can enjoy a 360-degree virtual tour at https://tinyurl.com/ncarTB.
Just outside the Visitor Center is an approximately half-mile self-guided weather trail that uses interpretative signs to explain how weather and climate features affect Colorado’s Front Range — the corridor between Pueblo and Fort Collins, including Denver and Boulder. It remains open during the current health crisis.
A spur leading from the trail connects to Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks with one of the city’s best views of the Flatirons. Bring a picnic and enjoy the beauty of this stunning landscape that local scientists are working to preserve for us all.