CROWLEY LAKE, Calif. — Each year, scientists from across the United States and as far as Russia come to a small compound at the base of the Sierra's east slope.
They come to study the psychology of ground squirrels, the population dynamics of brine shrimp, the characteristics of melting snow and other natural phenomena.
The group of wood buildings at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory, a part of the University of California's Natural Reserve System, provides a base of operations for scientists who would otherwise have a difficult time doing research in this remote area.
"We provide support facilities in a part of the state that is biologically rich but poor in terms of university facilities," said Dan Dawson, manager of the lab complex. "Scientists come here because they have a very local research interest, and they use this as their base of operations."
The research facility, known to scientists by the acronym SNARL, provides laboratories, workshops, computers, office space and housing for up to 40 people.
In back of the compound is a one-of-a-kind experimental stream system used for aquatic research. The series of nine concrete-lined, zigzagging water channels uses flows from Convict Creek to create stream conditions that can be altered for experiments.
Scientists using the laboratory work on projects in geology, botany, studies of land animals and other fields, in addition to aquatic biology. Four staff scientists work out of the laboratory on independently funded research projects. Dawson and a small staff provide support.
The fenced-off, 51-acre site also preserves natural stream, meadow and woodland areas for study.
Although some of the lab's research projects sound frivolous or eccentric, many have important practical applications.
For example, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist is using the laboratory as a base to study carbon dioxide emissions that killed trees near Mammoth Mountain, signaling underground volcanic activity. The project is partly intended to assess the likelihood of a volcanic eruption in the area.
State officials relied partly on research data about nearby Mono Lake's ecosystem to determine the amount of water that the city of Los Angeles could divert to Southern California.
"We have a long history of research on Mono Lake based out of the lab," Dawson said. "Those efforts were critical in predicting the potential impact on the Mono Lake ecosystem if the lake level continued to decline."
Work being done by another of the lab's scientists on the impact of nonnative trout on Sierra aquatic ecosystems could lead to changes in trout stocking practices here.
The study by Roland Knapp has found that stocking of nonnative trout in high-elevation Sierra lakes has harmed native amphibians. Knapp contributed a chapter on the subject to the report of the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project, a comprehensive environmental study of the entire Sierra range commissioned by Congress and released last summer.
"If SNARL wasn't here I probably wouldn't be doing the work I'm doing," Knapp said. "I'd probably be at a major university a long way from a study site, with all the extra costs involved."
Warren Holmes, a psychology professor from the University of Michigan, has brought students to the Sierra facility to study the behavior of Belding's ground squirrels. The lab provided facilities to study the animals that would have been hard to find elsewhere, and he and his students enjoy the interaction with other researchers working at the lab, he said.
"It's an opportunity to find out what scientists are doing in other fields," he said. "And by living in a building with running water and electricity, you don't have to spend three or four hours a day just putting food on the table and staying dry, which is often what happens if you are working out of a tent."
Other recent research projects at the lab have included one funded by the U.S. Army to evaluate mountain snowpacks from space. That study is aimed at advancing the ability to forecast snow runoff from inaccessible mountain areas.
Two snow hydrologists from the Russian Academy of Sciences also came to the lab last year to work with scientists from UC Santa Barbara on another snowpack study funded by NASA.
Dawson said the laboratory has encountered an occasional problem with local residents who take exception to some of the environmental work being done at the laboratory, or who think the facility wastes taxpayers money.
"We have had some problems with people who think what we're doing is a taxpayer-funded boondoggle and that the university has no business being involved in this kind of operation," he said.
"But by and large, we enjoy good public support and good local government support."
The lab site has been paired with another reserve, the Valentine Camp near Mammoth Mountain, to form the Valentine Eastern Sierra Reserve, one of the 33 units in the University of California's Natural Reserve System.
The statewide system was established in 1965 to preserve "undisturbed samples of California's natural habitats for education," according to a university brochure. The reserve is funded from fees paid by the visiting scientists, by an endowment for the Valentine Camp property and by the university.
The reserve recently began an outreach program for children from local elementary schools, coordinated by Dawson's wife, Leslie. Under the program, children from kindergarten through eighth grades came to the lab or the Valentine Camp last year for a hands-on lesson in some aspect of science.
Jeannie Oakeshot, a teacher at Mammoth Elementary School, took third- and fourth-graders from another local school to the laboratory last year.
"It's great for kids in this area, it's so remote," she said. "The kids were engrossed. I think they got a sense of themselves as future scientists."