Meet Luke Gommermann
Degree Seeking: PhD - Watershed Science
Faculty Advisor: Dr. Jack Schmidt
Research Area: Big river monitoring and geomorphologic modeling
Luke Gommermann is a first responder, of sorts. For the past several years he has kept careful tabs on vital signs in national parks as part of the Northern Colorado Plateau Network (NCPN). He counted plants, tested soils, probed for invasive species, and (most recently) monitored the health of big rivers. NCPN is one of 32 networks composing the National Park Service’s Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) Division. By analyzing and reporting their findings, NCPN helps park managers better understand the status and trends of ecosystems within their boundaries and develop strategies for future restoration or mitigation.
Luke spent his childhood as an abnormally youthful snowbird, bouncing with his family between a tiny town in Wisconsin in the summer and fall to a condo in metro Florida to enjoy the balmy winter and spring. It was an unusual way to grow up – his high school in Florida, he said, had a student body greater than the population of his entire Wisconsin hometown. But the contrast was something he valued – it gave him perspective highlighting geography’s role in shaping our world, including how different communities meet water needs and how local components interact to create ecosystems. Luke settled down long enough to earn two degrees from the University of Florida, a BS in Geological Sciences and an MS in Soil and Water Science. After graduation, he resumed a snowbird lifestyle, moving seasonally through positions with the National Park Service. Luke and his wife, Amy, spent five years working winters as park rangers in the surreal swamps of Big Cypress National Preserve, transitioning each summer to positions as park scientists in the American Southwest. They were both permanently hired by NCPN in 2017.
The designers of the NCPN program were thinking long-term when they initiated the program in 1998. The I&M system is designed to last 80 years or more – longevity that would allow sweeping perspective for managers to better understand and support adapting ecosystems in a quickly changing world. Since the program is still in relative infancy, now is the time to examine whether we’ve chosen the right sites and are measuring the right variables to get the best information over time, Luke said. As part of his research with CCRS, Luke will compare NPS data sets with research done independently. It’s an opportunity to fine-tune the effectiveness of the current approach.
For instance, most rivers on the Colorado Plateau have controlled flows. Adding dams to a river system converts a dynamic system into something more static. Resulting changes can include how much sediment is deposited or eroded, the shape of the river, and the structure and composition of local plant communities. The ability to monitor these factors over time helps managers to understand this “new normal,” said Luke. NCPN’s big rivers monitoring focuses on four national parks and their associated rivers: the Gunnison River in Curecanti National Recreation Area and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, the Green and Yampa Rivers in Dinosaur National Monument, and the Green and Colorado Rivers in Canyonlands National Park. NCPN conducts annual geomorphology and vegetation surveys and records hourly water levels at sites along these rivers. With enough data, Luke and fellow researchers at NCPN will be able help park managers anticipate how these river ecosystems will respond to future challenges from increases in water demand and climate change.
Luke at CCRS
Monitoring works best when you take time to step back and understand the whole picture, said Luke. The Center for Colorado River studies creates space for this to happen. Developing a strong academic background and research skills based specifically on western waterways is an important aspect of building this perspective.
“My work at the Center for Colorado River Studies allows me to take what I am seeing in the field, and understand it at a critical level,” he said. Ultimately, the goal is to provide park managers with information that is accurate, insightful and useful. When they have the best information, they can make the best decisions for these special places that belong to all Americans, he said.
More Info: Big-River Monitoring on the Colorado Plateau