Disappearing Rio Grande

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Why Follow the Rio Grande

by Colin McDonald | Feb. 11, 2015

The Rio Grande is disappearing. Demand for water is growing as snow packs shrink, rain patterns shift and average temperatures rise faster than they ever have in the past 11,000 years.

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From the Red River to the Red Planet, Day 26

Kip Hodges, professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, leads a group of astronaut candidates on a geological tour of the Rio Grande Gorge. Ancient lava flows can be seen in cliffs on both sides of the gorge. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

Since the Apollo moon missions in the 1960s, NASA astronauts have come to the Rio Grande Gorge to test equipment and study geology.

The landscape has extinct volcanoes, is surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks and is crisscrossed by faults and lava flows. It also has an enormous rift running underneath and the Rio Grande Gorge and Red River cutting through the middle to show the different layers.

We were able to spend Tuesday morning with the latest group of NASA astronaut candidates. They were in the middle of a weeklong camping trip on the rim of the gorge to study the geology and learn how to operate as a team in difficult terrain.

The candidates learn fast. The current class includes a test pilot, a doctor and several scientists who were selected from more than 6,000 applicants. They have the help of some of the best geology professors in the Southwest and know that their understanding of rock formations could make the difference for being selected to go on a mission.

“Within a week they are operating at the level of a senior undergraduate or first year master student,” said Dean Eppler, a senior lunar scientist at NASA and the man in charge of the geology training for the candidates.

This group is being prepared for long stays on the International Space Station and the possibility of much longer missions to Mars. For both, they need to have an intimate understanding of the forces that are constantly reshaping the face of the Earth and the planets. What they will see out of their office windows can provide insight for those of us operating at much lower altitudes.

“We want to make them better observers,” said astronaut Mike Fossum, who was helping with the training. “To say, ‘Oh, look at that those dunes, that’s a weird structure.’”

Once the odd dunes are identified, be they on Earth or Mars, scientists can start the process to understand why they are different and expand our understanding of the world, Fossum explained.

In 2011, Fossum was the commander of the International Space Station for six months and was able to get rare photos to document glacial retreat in South America.  Photos of volcanic eruptions and deforestation have also been critical to understanding the large forces changing the surface of the Earth, he said.

On Tuesday, the candidates were getting the opportunity to walk through the desert landscape, which they had spent the last several weeks studying via photos taken from the Space Station as it orbited 230 miles above the earth.

Their job was to piece together the puzzle of how the landscape came to be.

For geologist Paul Bauer, the principal geologist and associate director at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Tech, it was a thrill to see his decades of work studying the geologic history of the gorge used. He is also one of the key local contacts who make the trips to the gorge possible and the author of the guidebook we are using to navigate this reach.

“It makes all the years of work out here worthwhile,” he said.

After all, 15 years from now, these candidates could be applying the lessons he has learned here on Mars.

We have a new video from running the rapids on the Upper Box.  Enjoy.

To comment on this post or ask a question, please visit the expedition's Facebook page.


To report on and understand the haphazard irrigation system the Rio Grande has become and the changes it is going through, Colin decided the best approach would be to travel the length of the Rio Grande by foot and small boat.

He knew it would give him a unique perspective on a river that few understand. It did require many long days of moving slowly and camping on muddy riverbanks, but Colin likes that sort of thing.

The benefit was it provided access to people who wanted to share their stories and experiences with the Rio Grande. Via Facebook and chance encounters, Colin made instant friends who opened their homes. They provided help from loaning their trucks to their cell phone contact lists to help tell the story of the Rio Grande.

The trip would not have been possible without their help, along with the dedicated assistance of David Lozano, Jason Jones and Daniel Dibona, who drove thousands of miles to get people and boats in place.


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