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Skiing for NASA
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Skiing for NASA

In a unique scientific partnership with NASA’s SnowEx field campaign, FLC interns Mario Davidson, Finlay Marshall, and Josh Andrews clicked into skis once a week and skinned up the slopes of Red Mountain Pass to the Senator Beck Basin Study Area. As they researched the snowpack of the San Juan Mountains, each winter snowstorm revealed a new chapter to be studied and added to a global story about water availability.

An amalgamation of universities and NGOs from around the world, NASA’s SnowEx cosmopolitan team informs hydrologists and resource managers about how much water each winter’s snowpack holds. The data enables decision makers in rural and urban communities to form more knowledgeable assessments for water management and disaster preparedness.

The team spent eight or more hours together every Wednesday, switching between banter about fresh powder, avalanche risk mitigation, and measurement taking, while the backdrop of some of the most gorgeous terrain in the Rocky Mountains loomed all around. Thick and fast like the flakes of a good storm, their instructor Andy Gleason would spew a flurry of information about the area they were traveling through, sharing knowledge he’s acquired from years as an expert on San Juan Mountains snow science.

“Being able to access that environment felt like an accumulation of skills, both personal and related to my degree,” says Marshall, who graduated with his bachelor’s in Engineering this spring. “This opportunity opened my eyes to a whole other world where you can apply engineering in a very different way. Andy would describe things in engineering-focused terms, and even a lot of the instrumentation that we were using I was familiar with from classes I’ve taken in electrodynamics.”

Though they all had prior experience backcountry skiing, the three interns have different majors. Gleason was able to mentor each of them through their shared interest in snow science and applied their lessons in the field to their different fields of study.

“This internship really shined a light on snow science for me but also taught me a lot about risk mitigation and teaching, and it planted the seed of pursuing a master’s in snow science,” reflects Andrews, a senior in Environmental Studies. “And working with a local legend in the snow and avalanche industry like Andy, there was so much knowledge and wisdom that he could share throughout the day. It was overwhelming at points but at the same time I felt very lucky to work with someone like that.”

Davidson, who is taking FLC courses as prerequisites and wants to be a science teacher, added, “I was looking for new opportunities, not only for myself, but practical knowledge and discussions about water that I can share with my students, whether it’s talking about how much water they’re going to have down in Cortez or water in its winter state in snow and avalanches.”

Equipped with a variety of instruments, the group would measure properties like depth, density, grain size, and temperature to determine snow-water equivalent, or SWE (pronounced “swee”). While they were on the ground digging pits to take measurements, another team of scientists conducted flyovers to simultaneously measure the same properties from the air. The teams gauged how similar instruments perform under different conditions, with the ultimate goal of determining whether water density measurements can be taken from satellites in space.

Josh Andrews uses a tool to measure the liquid water in the snowpack.
 

Josh Andrews uses a LWC (Liquid Water Content) meter, which utilizes the dielectric properties of ice to measure the liquid water in the snowpack.

 
 

“This internship really shined a light on snow science for me but also taught me a lot about risk mitigation and teaching, and it planted the seed of pursuing a master’s in snow science.”
-Josh Andrews

Three interns standing in the snow with skis and thumbs up.
 

FLC interns Mario Davidson, Finlay Marshall, and Josh Andrews on the last field day of the NASA SnowEx project.

 
 

"Whether you realize it or not, you could be backpacking or hiking through an active research area where scientists are collecting things to solve a greater, global issue.”
-Mario Davidson

One student measures snow while another takes notes.
 

Josh Andrews takes notes while Finlay Marshall takes density measurements at the Swamp Angel Study Plot on Red Mountain Pass.

 
 

“It’s the little things that roll up to the big things—snow measurements that someday are going to help the satellite work correctly.”
-Finlay Marshall

 

Currently, winter snowfall—a crucial water source for consumption, agriculture, and hydropower for more than one billion people worldwide—is closely tracked at a limited number of locations around the world. A potential future NASA global snow mission will combine multiple remote sensing instruments, field observations, and models. SnowEx scientists are discovering the best instrument combinations to use, since no single instrument can do it alone.

“Our data sets are legacy data sets, so it was imperative that the work we were doing was precise and accurate,” says Marshall. “It’s the little things that roll up to the big things—snow measurements that someday are going to help the satellite work correctly.”

From the importance of their data to NASA or to regional water users, to the friendships they formed with each other and the interactions they had with other backcountry recreationists, their experience and the connections they made were profound to each of them.

“Our last day was a really interesting day,” recalls Davidson. “A couple other recreational snowboarders had gone through before us and put a track right through the spot we were working in. We were able to adjust and make do, but what it highlighted for me is just how often we all are able to interact with science. Whether you realize it or not, you could be backpacking or hiking through an active research area where scientists are collecting things to solve a greater, global issue.”

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