Climbers and Climate Change: Nathalie Chardon

Did you know the AAC supports cutting-edge scientific research? Through the Research Grant program, we provide funding to multiple researchers across the country every year. The scope of work Our Researchers conduct is broad, but a common thread among many of them is investigating the effects of climate change. A timely topic, we've asked several of our researchers to sit down and chat with us about climate change, their research and their climbing. 

AAC member Nathalie Chardon is a 4th year Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the Environmental Studies Program. Nathalie's research is surveying alpine plant species on popular trails on many of Colorado’s “14’ers” (mountains with summits greater than 14,000 feet). Jonathan Oulton, AAC member and geologist, spoke with Chardon to find out more:

Q&A With Nathalie Chardon

Oulton: Why is your research important to climbers?

Chardon: My research is largely focused on how plant communities in extreme environments respond to human disturbance. Without a clear understanding of how these communities respond to increasing human traffic, we can’t effectively conserve these areas.

Areas that may have been relatively untouched in times past (e.g. alpine ecosystems) are especially vulnerable to negative impacts from human disturbance. As climbers we are frequent visitors to these sensitive regions and thus have the responsibility to be aware of the consequences of our actions.

Oulton: Looking ahead, what do you foresee as the most significant challenges to addressing climate change?

Chardon: I anticipate there being two primary issues to solving the climate change problem. (1) A lack of funding for long-term climate change research, and, (2) A lack of public knowledge on what processes are actually happening. This ends up leading to political decisions, from the citizen to the senator level, that don’t support scientifically backed claims.

Relatively quick climate change impacts will occur on 10-, 20-, or 50-year timescales. To conduct thorough research on these impacts, we need consistent funding over the same time-scales. Our current political/economic system typically focuses on short term profits, perhaps 5-year profits at the most. Resultantly, obtaining that kind of funding is extremely difficult.

Nathalie Chardon surveying plant communities at ~13,500 feet on Mt Belford

Nathalie Chardon surveying plant communities at ~13,500 feet on Mt Belford

Alpine sunrise on Quandary Peak during Nathalie's field work

Alpine sunrise on Quandary Peak during Nathalie's field work

Oulton: A common sentiment is that "the actions of an individual can't influence an issue as massive as climate change." This attitude is dangerous, as it can lead to complacency. What actions can an individual take to have a positive, real influence on climate change?

Chardon: I disagree firmly with that sentiment. Anyone can have a huge impact on reducing greenhouse gases. My recommendation boils down to three things: buying local food, drastically reducing waste, and driving only when necessary.

Consider for a moment how far most food needs to travel to make it to your table, and how much fossil fuel is burned to accomplish that. Multiply that by 3 meals a day, 7 days a week, every single month, etcetera, and pretty soon you’ve racked up an extensive fossil fuel bill.

If you do these three things, you will drastically reduce your greenhouse gas emissions! This would be incredibly impactful, because greenhouse gases directly ‘fuel’ climate change.

Oulton: That makes sense, thank you. That wraps up our main climate change questions. You’ve spent countless hours doing research on Colorado’s 14’ers. Do you have a favorite/least favorite 14’er?

Chardon: My least favorite is Bierstadt, it’s depressing to me how the trail has become a highway. Choosing a favorite is harder… I think it must be the South Side of Mt. Elbert, from the Black Cloud trailhead. The whole hike is super steep with spectacular views, I absolutely love it! Over the two times I’ve been up I think I’ve only seen four people total. You’re so removed.

Oulton: Have you had any ridiculous tourist interactions on Colorado’s 14’ers?

Chardon: For my field work I’ve built a 1x1 meter grid that I can assemble on-site, but that means when I’m hiking I have four white poles sticking out my pack. It’s an unusual sight. The two funniest inquiries I’ve had are “Is that a hang gliding get-up?” and “Are you carrying a volleyball net?”

Nathalie's field assistant, Clea Berholet, assembling the surveying grid on Grey's Peak

Nathalie's field assistant, Clea Berholet, assembling the surveying grid on Grey's Peak

Oulton: That’s fantastic. What is one of your most memorable climbing experiences?

Chardon: Climbing limestone tufas in Kalymnos, Greece. Hands down, it was incredible. I’ve never experienced any climbing like it, ever. Ever. The moves you make there have nothing to do with climbing as I knew it. At one point, I put my feet against one tufa and my back against another – it was the only time I’ve taken a no-hands-rest on an overhung route. I loved it!

Oulton: If you were given a 3-month, all expenses-paid climbing trip, where would you go/What would you do?

Chardon: Well, I would do two things. I would start out sport climbing near Yangshuo, China, where they have those huge limestone arches. Then I’d take some time in the Karakoram Range, Pakistan to do some SkiMo (Ski Mountaineering), without a doubt. Let me know if that trip ever happens!

We’ll keep you posted, Nathalie! Thanks for chatting with us.

For more information on Nathalie, her research, and other AAC Research Grant recipients, please see the following links:

AAC’s “Meet Our Researchers” Webpage

Nathalie’s Trip report for the AAC

Nathalie’s CU Boulder Profile