Montana State University

MSU “ice patch” scientists win Camp Monaco Prize for work in Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

July 27, 2016 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

HSH the Sovereign Prince Albert II of Monaco, left, presented the Camp Monaco Prize to three MSU professors (from left) Craig M. Lee, Gregory Pederson and David McWethy at ceremonies held June 30 at the Salle des Etoiles in Monaco. The three ecologists will use the $100,000 cash award that comes with the prize to study ancient material revealed by melting ice patches in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Photo by FPA2, JC Vinaj. Used with permission.Scott Dersam and Sari Breitenfeldt, both MSU undergraduates majoring in anthropology, log an ice patch in the Greater Yellowstone Area. Three MSU scientists studying material revealed by the melting patches recently won the Camp Monaco Prize in ceremonies presided by Prince Albert II of Monaco. Photo courtesy of Craig Lee.

HSH the Sovereign Prince Albert II of Monaco, left, presented the Camp Monaco Prize to three MSU professors (from left) Craig M. Lee, Gregory Pederson and David McWethy at ceremonies held June 30 at the Salle des Etoiles in Monaco. The three ecologists will use the $100,000 cash award that comes with the prize to study ancient material revealed by melting ice patches in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Photo by FPA2, JC Vinaj. Used with permission.

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A trio of Montana State University-affiliated scientists frantically working to save ancient material revealed by melting patches of ice in the mountains of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have won the $100,000 Camp Monaco Prize from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center’s Draper Natural History Museum, University of Wyoming’s Biodiversity Institute, and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation-USA.

The winners of the 2016 Camp Monaco Prize are: Craig M. Lee, an MSU graduate and archaeologist who holds an appointment in MSU’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology as well as a research appointment at the University of Colorado; Dave McWethy, assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences who also holds a doctorate from MSU; and Gregory T. Pederson, paleoclimatologist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center who is an MSU graduate and research associate. The prize was conferred in Monaco by His Serene Highness, the Sovereign Prince of Monaco Albert II at ceremonies held July 1 in the Salle des Etoiles in Monaco. Lee, McWethy and Pederson traveled to Monte Carlo to accept the award.

The scientists say they plan to use the prize to help them study the ancient material uncovered by rapidly retreating mountain ice patches to develop “a better understanding of environmental change and past human activity in the high elevations of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”

“Ice-patch research provides a unique opportunity to discover the timing and scope of human use in the region’s most fragile ecosystem—the alpine zone,” Lee said.

The prize will help Lee, McWethy and Pederson to study three aspects of life in high mountain environments over a period of 10 millennia.

Lee is an archaeologist who studies archaeological material exposed with the thaw of ice patches at high elevations. A Bozeman native and resident who teaches at MSU in addition to serving as a research scientist with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Lee frequently involves MSU undergraduates in his fieldwork.

Pederson studies tree rings of remnant wood found in the patches to chart the ancient climate. Pederson, whose research specialty is the study of how variations in the climate drive drought and other changes in water resources in mountainous areas of the West, received his master’s degree at MSU prior to earning a doctorate at the University of Arizona. He is currently based in Bozeman with the USGS and is a research scientist affiliated with the MSU Department of Earth Sciences in the College of Letters and Science.

Pederson said that one of the surprises of the ice patch research was the discovery of trees in near perfect preservation that perished in growing ice patches over 5000 years ago. Each of the preserved trees grew for more than 400 years in a position well above modern tree line, making them optimal candidates for reconstructing climatic conditions during the mid-Holocene, he said.

The second notable discovery was the fact that the trees were a five-needle pine species, and most likely white bark pine; indicating a dynamic range shift to higher elevation by the species during a historic period of harsh regional climate conditions.

McWethy, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Earth Sciences who received his doctorate at MSU, is the ecosystem specialist in the team. McWethy will work with Cathy Whitlock, director of MSU’s Institute on Ecosystems and the Paleoecology Lab at MSU, to examine pollen, charcoal and insect remains from sediment layers embedded in ice cores from the patches.

The proposal that the three submitted for the Camp Monaco prize explores the dynamic past of the GYA, including its seasonal use by Native American groups over thousands of years. The team will explore how wildlife and people intensified their use of the alpine in the face of hot and dry conditions in the valleys, or lessened their presence during colder and wetter conditions. According to their proposal, a goal of the research is to determine if human and animal use cluster around known periods of unusual climatic conditions such as droughts and warm intervals.

“This project represents a great example of why interdisciplinary research is needed; to better understand what happened in the past we need a team with skills in archeology, paleoclimatology and paleoecology,” McWethy said.

The committee that judged the prize agreed.

“One of the exciting aspects of the retreating ice fields project is that it takes advantage of a newly emerging source of information to understand our past and perhaps help predict our future,” said Charles R. Preston, jury co-chair and founding curator of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Draper Natural History Museum.

Lee said that while the scientists study ancient materials, the changing climate dictates  a certain urgency to their work. The prize will help them put their research on the front burner.

“The melting of mountain ice-patches provides a great opportunity to understand what happened in the past, but we need to intercept the materials before they degrade and are lost forever,” Lee said.

“I think it’s wonderful that the granting bodies, including a foreign entity, put such value on the scientific and cultural understanding of a resource precious to so many Native American tribes, scientists, government agencies, policymakers and members of the general public.”

Awarded every three years, the "Camp Monaco" Prize is named in honor of the camp established in 1913 near the Yellowstone National Park by Prince Albert I of Monaco and William "Buffalo Bill" Cody. This is the second time that the prize has been awarded in honor of “scientific research and public education initiatives in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that inform, inspire, and enhance biodiversity conservation regionally and around the world. The first winners were Arthur Middleton, a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Joe Riis, a wildlife photojournalist and contract photographer for National Geographic, who used the prize to document elk migration in the GYE.

Craig Lee (406) 994-4201, craig.lee3@montana.edu

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