AGCI Insight

Observations in the snow: A glimpse into life at a remote field research site

February 22, 2023
The view from under the snow-covered cabin awning on a beautiful sunny day in RMBL. Photo: Emilio Mateo

Monday, January 30, 7:00 am: Time to head home. For the past two weeks, the Sublimation of Snow Project (SOS) team had been conducting an “Intensive Observation Period,” or IOP, at our field site near the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL). Now, this phase of our exhilarating flurry of learning was coming to an end. As I packed, I glanced out the window, checking the weather. We’d soon be skiing nearly four miles back to our vehicles. It was still dim out, and the falling snow blew past a landscape from another era: no cars or plows, just still, deep blankets of white covering the ground, draping on small clusters of wooden cabins. There would be no group viewing of sunrise illuminating Gothic Mountain this morning. The stuff we’d come to study would obscure the view.

Sublimation of snow is the process by which water transforms straight from a solid (snow) into a gas (water vapor). The goal of the SOS Project is to improve and communicate scientific understanding of why, when, where, and how much snow sublimates in a mountain environment. Given growing demand for water use and the ongoing severe drought in the Western US, the stakes are high for understanding every aspect of the water cycle, including this one. 

Back in sunny October 2022, our project team of University of Washington researchers; AGCI staff; and NCAR scientists, engineers, and technicians descended on RMBL to install an extensive collection of instruments at Kettle Ponds, an established research site in a mountain meadow a mile-and-a-half from our cabins. Alongside equipment from the Department of Energy’s SAIL and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s SPLASH programs, we erected four towers with dense arrays of sensors to capture frequent, recurrent measurements of the snow, the air, the sun’s energy, and the processes that tie them all together. By the end of the installation there were over 100 SOS sensors, from below ground all the way up to 20 meters in the air. Collectively the equipment is recording millions of data points every hour — a number that jumps into the billions if you include all the data points from the lidar ground-scanning lasers.

Several SOS Project team members visited RMBL for the Intensive Observation Period, or IOP. Top L-R: Emilio Mateo (AGCI), Ethan Gutmann (NCAR), Danny Hogan (UW), Antonio Vigil (NCAR), Will Nicewonger (NCAR), Eli Schwat (UW). Bottom L-R: Jessica Lundquist (UW), Julie Vano (AGCI), Elise Osenga (AGCI) Photo: Emilio Mateo

These automated datasets create an important scaffold of information for us and other, future researchers to build upon. But even such an advanced and densely concentrated set of instruments benefits from complementary, manual observations made by humans in the field. To this end, two SOS team members — University of Washington graduate students Danny Hogan and Eli Schwat — are living at RMBL from January through March. The January IOP visit provided an opportunity for the rest of the SOS team, myself included, to join them for two weeks to fine-tune methods, coordinate approaches to data collection, discuss ongoing analysis, validate instrument readings, and take additional manual measurements.  

The SOS Project team also used the IOP visit to videotape activities on and off the field site and collect detailed notes for outreach and education materials that will allow people to learn about snow sublimation and the scientific process alongside the SOS team.

Sunrise over Gothic Mountain, seen from our cabin at RMBL. Photo: Emilio Mateo

IOP days often began before sunrise, with conversations over coffee about the previous day’s snow behavior or ideas for papers and follow-on research. On clear mornings, we would pause at 7:14 am to collectively peer out the window at the back of the cabin for the “daily show”: sunrise spreading over the face of Gothic Mountain. After breakfast, we would meet up with Danny, Eli, and the visiting NCAR crew to ski out to the field site, following a flagged route through safe terrain and out of other researchers’ plots.

NCAR crew (Will on tower, Steve at base) repair an instrument. Photo: Emilio Mateo

Once at Kettle Ponds, we kept strictly to a set path to avoid disrupting our own measurements. We observed the snow on broad and minute scales, investigated unexpected readings, and swapped out data cards. As needed, the NCAR technicians repaired and replaced instruments or adjusted sensor positions. 

Most mornings, we also dug a snowpit to provide a window into the different layers of the snowpack and how they change over time. Using this common technique, we could distinguish the texture of new snow that fell the prior night.

Time lapse video of SOS team members Jessica, Emilio, and Eli digging a snow pit. Photos and video: Emilio Mateo

Low-density snow in the top layer meant that people at the nearby Crested Butte ski resort were enjoying powder conditions. In lower layers, we could see how the wind had redistributed and packed powder from several weeks ago, forming a visible (and tangible) hard layer, or “wind slab.” We could also document how regions of rapid temperature change in the pit wall were subject to sublimation and water vapor redistribution within the pack. As water vapor moves from warmer to colder regions of the snow, the water mass and density in different layers also changes. Just during the course of our visit, we observed the process of snow crystals rounding and the snowpack generally becoming more stable and less prone to avalanche risk. As we work to further understand the process of snow sublimation, these snowpit observations provide a complement to the variables measured by the instruments above the snow surface.

Danny, Jessica, and Eli inside the snowpit, examining the snow layers. Photo: Emilio Mateo

Afternoons back at the cabin were no less busy. The team balanced SOS Project work with checking emails and other work responsibilities from back home (made possible by the excellent wifi at RMBL). Our SOS tasks varied. The team planned future educational resources, reviewed the day’s field footage, and conducted video interviews. We also discussed research approaches, reviewed data, adjusted measurement frequencies, tinkered with sensors brought in from the cold for repair, and speculated on whether or not the fox that frequently visits the site might disrupt our measurements by marking its territory in the wrong place some day. In the evening we would all sit down to a cheerful family meal.

Between the measurements and conversations, the “intensive observation period” was aptly named. Our days were very full. But the remote nature of the field site kept the work from feeling hectic: being surrounded by snow on all sides helped us keep our focus on the subject we came to study.

This immersion in place benefits research for pragmatic reasons: in the field we can observe wind patterns beyond what sensors capture and note conditions on slopes far above the official site. When Eli and Danny later look back at the data, for instance, their memory of how cold their toes got on a particular day might trigger insight into why the snow behaved the way it did at that time. 

A view of Dorothy Peak seen through the aspens, taken up valley from RMBL. Photo: Emilio Mateo

Sense of place also has a value that is harder to describe, though — the fascination sparked by a snowflake crystal outlined against your mitten or the cloud-like feel of breaking trail on skis in fresh powder. Science is about numbers and graphs, about clear methods for understanding and explaining the world around us. But at its core, science is not void of emotion: it is imbued with the thrill of discovery, the frustration of setbacks, the jolt of curiosity, the impetus of inspiration. In providing moments to connect with a beautiful, remote place, the IOP experience at RMBL offered a chance for both: the collection of data and the space for wonder.