Skiing for science: Undergraduates take critical snowpack measurements in the high mountains

March 13, 2013

In the predawn darkness in the heart of winter, as most of their classmates are still in bed, four University of Colorado Boulder undergraduates ready themselves for an often brutal and bone-chilling ski uphill to research sites in the snow-encrusted Indian Peaks high above Boulder.

It’s Friday morning. And as they do every Friday throughout the winter — regardless of snowstorms, bitter cold, or worse, the biting and unrelenting winds that are near-constant companions in the high mountains — a rotation of four of the six interns at CU-Boulder’s Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research make the hour’s drive from Boulder to the university’s Mountain Research Station, tucked in the trees at 9,500 feet above the tiny hamlet of Ward.

From there, the students attach “climbing skins” to the bottom of their skis, strap on backpacks, step into bindings and begin a grueling three-mile, 1,500-foot climb to the first of the two research sites. If the conditions are safe, they’ll carry on another “hard mile” and 500 feet higher to the final site on the gentle, rounded spine of Niwot Ridge.

Gathering data at the two sites is a valuable hands-on — and rare — learning experience for snow hydrology students. But perhaps more importantly, the data they collect by digging snow pits down to the grassy earth below is critical for helping scientists understand how the delicate high-altitude ecosystem is changing in the face of a warming climate. 

“We are training them to be snow hydrologists, but the measurements they are taking are for real,” said Mark Williams, an INSTAAR fellow who developed the snow intern program after coming to CU-Boulder in the early 1990s.

‘I’m one of Mark’s snow interns’

Before Williams arrived at the Mountain Research Station, which is the home base for a long-term ecological research project on Niwot Ridge that has been ongoing since 1980, snow surveys during the winter were erratic, due, at least in part, to the difficulty of reaching the sites. Williams, who ran his own backcountry ski operation as a younger man, was not daunted by the tough approach to the sites and enlisted eager, talented, and importantly, fit students to help with the project.

“Students have a really romantic view of snow hydrology, but it can be pretty brutal; it’s a reality check for students,” Williams said. “The bottom line is you get in really good shape.”

Nearly two decades later, Williams has more students who are willing to participate each year than he has spots to fill, and graduates of the program leave with valuable credentials that give them a leg up in the snow hydrology world, whether they’re applying for graduate school or looking for a job, such as working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s snow telemetry program, known as SNOTEL.

“A number of snow interns are working at SNOTEL,” Williams said. “All they have to say is, ‘I’m one of Mark’s snow interns.’”

The critical human element

Over the years, the measurements taken at both sites by undergraduates have been used to publish about a dozen peer-reviewed scientific studies. “We’re providing data for long-term research projects,” said snow intern Danielle Snyder, a senior in environmental studies. “We are the people who go out every week to get the data for the scatter plot (graphs used in the papers).”

One of the most recent papers published was a 2012 study that describes a new technique for using GPS devices to measure snow depth remotely. The snow-depth data collected by students provided a way to determine the accuracy of the GPS measurements. But even if the GPS technique becomes widely used, it won’t replace the need for the students, Williams said.

“We haven’t been able to replace the human element at all,” Wiliams said. “You need ground-truthing. You need to dig pits. You need to stick your probes in.”

‘It really helps me learn it’

On a Friday morning in early March, blessed by relatively warm temperatures and near-absent winds, snow intern Kendal Gotthelf, also a senior majoring in environmental studies, stands neck-deep in a snow pit at the lower site taking the standard measurements collected each week. She measures the pit’s depth, the number of layers, and the types of snow crystals that make up each stratum, which can range from tiny, prism-shaped particles to large, feathery plates that create the weak layers that increase avalanche danger in steeper terrain.

The snow interns also measure the density of each layer, which is critical to understanding how much water will actually be available when the snow begins to melt in the spring, and they test the hardness, pressing their fists and fingers into the snow to estimate each layer’s integrity. Finally, they collect snow samples that will be tested back in the lab to determine the snow chemistry — including the concentration of nitrates, a pollutant emitted from tailpipes and by fertilizers — and to measure the tiny microbes that teem beneath the surface, an ecological discovery that CU-Boulder researchers are at the forefront of.

“We talk about all this stuff in class, and then we actually see it in the field,” said Gotthelf, who took a snow hydrology class last year. “It really helps me learn it.” And besides cementing lessons learned in the classroom, the snow internship program offers an adventure.

“I love that we can do stuff outdoors, unlike other internships you could do where you’d be stuck in the office,” Gotthelf said.

This year’s snow interns are being led by graduate student Katya Hafich, and they include Kelsey Hewitt, Robert Semborski, Brent Butler and Jimmy Howe, along with Snyder and Gotthelf.

Learn more about the research going on at Niwot Ridge and CU-Boulder's Mountain Research Station by watching this video.