Researcher looking at climate change impacts on Middle Fork

by Daniel McKay
Whitefish Pilot | June 17, 2020 7:11 AM

While the climate as a whole is changing, Claire Rawlings Gilder wants to examine the ways just one part of our world is changing with it — our rivers.

Rawlings Gilder, a geosciences graduate student at the University of Montana, plans to begin a research project site along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River this summer in an attempt to examine the ways the changing climate is impacting the river and its associated ecosystems.

Rawlings Gilder was recently awarded a prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation, as well as a Glacier National Park Conservancy Jerry O’Neal Research Fellowship.

“The goal of my research is to not just be applicable to the forks of the Flathead River, it’s to come up with the underlying processes that are driving the changes we’re seeing in the river and be able to apply that to other rivers,” she said.

The work at the Middle Fork can especially help inform Glacier National Park by informing park policy, Rawlings Gilder said.

“The Middle Fork is a pretty typical representative river for the region. Especially when we’re dealing with things like earlier snowmelt or declining snowpack or a change in the temperature ranges the river experiences over time, those all impact the ecosystems around the river. When we start talking about ways the climate is changing, it’s how different plants are getting footholds in Montana or some fish are struggling because of higher river temperatures, all those things are affected by how the river is moving, how it changes and interacts,” she said. “Being able to understand how those things affect the river gives us some understanding of how those things might be affected.”

The NSF award is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind and has gone out to numerous Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin and “Freakonomics” co-author Steven Levitt. Rawlings Gilder is one of only two Montana students to earn the honor, and just one of three geomorphology students nationally to receive the award. As part of the fellowship, she will receive a three-year annual stipend of $24,000 and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees and professional development.

The Jerry O’Neal Fellowship is dedicated to its namesake scientist, poet and writer who was named deputy superintendent of Glacier in 2002.

“That is given in honor of a kind of jack-of-all-trades scientist who used to be at Glacier,” Rawlings Gilder said. “One of the things this fellowship is designed for is to make meaningful research for both the social and the physical aspects of the park. The research fellowship they give at the park, they want to have not only science in the park but also science that has a meaningful impact to the people who come to the park.”

Rawlings Gilder said the awards are extremely encouraging, especially given her path to becoming a geosciences student.

She’s flipflopped between being a stay-at-home mother and a legal assistant since graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, until recently, when she and her family moved to Montana so she could attend UM and pursue geosciences.

Getting the fellowships and grants make the decision feel like it was the correct one, she says.

“It’s really validating. I decided I wanted to be a geoscentist when I was like 34 years old, so moving here, going to UM, all of this was a complete 180 from what my life was doing before then,” she said. “So to have reached this point and decided to get a PhD and to have something as prestigious as the GRFP say, “We think you are capable of doing meaningful science” is really encouraging.”