WMRC/WMRS History Page

WMRC (formerly WMRS) has a distinguished history of supporting scientific research since 1950. It has played a key role in many scientific milestones, including the physiology of hypoxia and ventilation (Nello Pace, John Severinghouse), the measurement and polarization of the cosmic background radiation (David Wilkinson, George Smoot), the physiology of hibernation (Hannah Carey), and Holocene paleoecology and paleoclimate in bristlecone pines (Ed Schulman, Wes Ferguson, Hal Fritts). Research at WMRC continues in these and many other fields.

For WMRC/WMRS history, see time line of key events, Nello Pace's 25 Years of High Altitude Research, Clarence Hall's Crooked Creek History, and the 2004 Emmy award winning documentary In the Shadow of White Mountain narrated by Peter Coyote.

First hand accounts by early WMRS staffers and other historic articles about WMRS may be read on WMRS History Documents page.

History summary: In 1947-1948, scientists from California Institute of Technology and the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) at China Lake advocated to the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research the establishment of a research facility in the White Mountains. They proposed three areas of reseach: 1) sun spots; 2) physicis of the upper atmosphere; and 3) cosmic radiation. Following approval NOTS initiated construction in August 1948.

A road from highway 168 at Westgard Pass north to Crooked Creek was completed by September 1948. Living quarters at Crooked Creek were completed by October and by December 1948 the road had been extended beyond Crooked Creek to the base of the White Mountain Peak.A quonset hut for research was constructed in 1948 on the ridge overlooking the Crooked Creek. In summer of 1949, Professor Nello Pace, of UC Berkeley, selected a site 15 km north of Crooked Creek for research in high-altiude physiology, funding for which was approved in July 1950.

In August 1950, Pace persuaded the Naval Ordnance Test Station not to dismantle the Crooked Creek facility but to turn it over to the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and have ONR write a contract with the University of California for its administration as a public research station. The contract was approved and the University of California White Mountain Research Station was established September 1, 1950.

In the summer 1951, Pace constructed a facility for high-altitude physiology 15 km miles north of Crooked Creek on the slopes of what is now Mt. Barcroft. Pioneering research by Pace and colleagues began to be published soon after the facilities were completed. In the mid-1950s the Bristlecone Pine forests in the White Mountains were found to contain one of the world’s most remarkable paleoclimate records, and in the 1960s Barcroft was found to be ideal for measuring the temperature of the early universe. 

As these activities expanded and facilities increased, a base station (the Owens Valley Laboratory) was established at the foot of the White Mountains near Bishop, California.  In the 1970s geologists from UCLA and other campuses began to see the value of the region for teaching field geology. In the 1980s the station blossomed as a multi-disciplinary field station with a diverse portfolio of research including human and animal physiology, animal ecology and behavior, plant physiology, archaeology, astrophysics, several disciplines of geosciences, and other fields.  In response to increased usage facilities were gradually upgraded, including a renovation of Barcroft Station in the early 1980s, full reconstruction of the Crooked Creek field station in the 1990s, and the addition of temporary buildings at OVS to increase housing, classroom space, and lab facilities.  WMRC activity remains high to the present day, averaging 5000-6000 user nights and 40-50 scholarly publications each year.  Most years see students and faculty from nearly every UC campus as well as nearly 100 other California, national, and international universities.

WMRS/WMRC has a tradition of organizing scientific meetings, including the highly successful Climate, Ecosystems and Resources in Eastern California in 2008 and the continuing GLORIA Field Week.  We also offer a free public lecture series at the Owens Valley Station every winter and spring, and host an open house at Barcroft every summer. 


History documents

Photos of Barcroft in the early years