SnowEx: Little Blogs from the Prairie – Part 2

Madeline Beck, Undergraduate Student in Environmental Science, Montana State University

Being part of a NASA research team is an exciting experience! Knowing our work will correspond with further research endeavors and help validate remotely sensed measurements makes us feel like part of a greater effort and team.

The research site is in a beautiful part of Montana. It feels remote and reminiscent of earlier times, and it is a new area of science for most of us. Being a part of larger research is always exciting and offers opportunities to learn and expand on our own knowledge and being able to do so in such a different, harsh environment offers new challenges that we must work through.

The exposed landscape and high winds of prairie environments create drifts, buried ice and other challenging features for the SnowEx team to investigate. Credit: GEOSWIRL / Montana State University
The exposed landscape and high winds of prairie environments create drifts, buried ice and other challenging features for the SnowEx team to investigate. Credit: GEOSWIRL / Montana State University

When we show up to do research, we often must adapt to the day’s weather conditions. While some field days are sunny and warm with a light breeze, others have been frigid with wind too loud to hear others speak. This is one of the most difficult, but most gratifying, parts of fieldwork and causes you to think on your feet. Our field duties include digging snow pits and taking the full suite of pit measurements, walking snow-depth transects with a probe and GPS unit, assisting other students with UAV flights, and downloading data from the many sensors.

While many of us in the class had dug either snow or soil pits in the past, none of our previous experience was able to prepare us for the snow we found at the research site. “Ice” is a better word for the “snow” that we found, and even a day after new snow fell at the site, the snow became hard and solid. We also found ice layers in the snowpack from periods of melt and refreeze. Digging the pits themselves, although all relatively shallow, proved to be back- or shovel-breaking work! It was interesting coming from a background where I had dug snow pits for research or recreational use, and seeing how different the layers and characteristics of snow pits at a plains research site could be.

Depth transects were an informative way to see how variable snow accumulation and retention were across the different field types. In areas of high stubble, snow was retained longer and in greater amounts. However, field’s location was also important due to a windbreak on the western edge of the field that kept snow from being blown around so much. Additionally, helping other students and researchers with UAV flights was beneficial, and although I fly UAV’s frequently for my own research, the research site’s harsh environment added more factors for the flights to go wrong, and quick troubleshooting was required to keep operations going. Lastly, learning to operate scientific loggers and make sense of the data collected was a great skill to gain. Seeing how raw data is collected and transformed to make sense of the readings was beneficial because we could then connect the data we had collected to the environment we had seen in person.

Learning in a field environment is drastically different from a classroom setting and helps you learn to adapt quickly and efficiently. In a classroom, you can plan in extreme detail, but something always seems to go against the plan while at a field study. However, having the skills to adapt and remain levelheaded is something you can only pick up through conducting research, and it is a skill that takes time to acquire. This project has helped me better plan for the unexpected and not let malfunctions impede my ability to continue carrying out research. It has also taught me the importance of working with others across different academic and scientific disciplines and that every individual brings a unique and beneficial perspective to the table. I know the ability to develop these friendships and contacts so early in my own academic career will benefit me for years to come and will help me become a better researcher myself. Being a part of the NASA SnowEx team has been an influential and enjoyable opportunity, and I look forward to seeing where these experiences will take me in the future.

Max Smay, Undergraduate Student in Earth Sciences, Montana State University

Being part of the NASA SnowEx project has been a very cool and unique experience compared to classes I have taken. It is cool to know we are part of a larger effort affecting real-world applications. Learning how this type of work takes place in the “real world” has also been very valuable to me and motivated me to find similar applied, hands-on work after getting my degree.

The days in the field are coordinated and busy, but they have not been very stressful or overwhelming. Our team seems well suited to assigning the day’s tasks and everyone seems to be having fun. My favorite parts of the field days have been reconvening and talking about what difficulties and successes everyone had in the field, and learning about new ways to collect and process data. When we’re done collecting data, I am usually dog tired and have some relaxing evenings as I appreciate being out of the cold. Learning in this environment is great compared to a classroom: first because there is much more autonomy, and second because we get to be outside and active.

With COVID, it has been harder to make connections and friends in the classroom, so this project has been a welcome way to connect with peers in a more active environment. I have been very appreciative that I get to take this class because of this, and the reasons mentioned above!

Mitchell Burger, Undergraduate Student in Earth Sciences, Montana State University

Being a part of a NASA research team is an amazing opportunity to get experience collecting data in the field and learn about the intricacies of a large-scale research project like SnowEx. It has brought us out to a part of Montana that we may not have seen before or thought about if we were to drive through the area. After some field days at the CARC in Moccasin, I have a new respect for and curiosity about prairie landscapes and their processes. Before going to the study site, I thought collecting data there would be straightforward and simple, but quickly learned it was anything but simple. It has been so cool to see the effects that wind has on snow cover in this environment and think about its repercussions for the hydrology of the area.

A day at the CARC begins with a nice drive from Bozeman to the center of Montana, where the CARC is located. Once there, we go over the plans for the day, which were settled upon in class earlier in the week. We all then go out and complete our tasks, such as digging snow pits, checking on the soil moisture sensors, doing snow depth transects, and helping with UAV flights. Doing snow depth transects has been my favorite part of the fieldwork, as I get to see the variability of snow depth across the different crop types firsthand. Once everything is done for the day, we all caravan back to Bozeman.

Learning out in the field is different from the classroom in that we learn from what is around us and talk about processes that are occurring while we are there. For example, before we dug our first snow pits on “the berm”, we discussed why it was covered with so much debris and how the debris may have increased snow melt until it was covered with snow again. When digging snow pits in any location, I always try to learn something new from the snowpack. In this environment though, we encountered some very unique snowpacks, and I think it forced many of us who are used to mountain snowpacks to step out of our comfort zones and ask new questions.

Caitlin Mitchell, PhD student in Land Resources Environmental Sciences

It is interesting to try to distinguish between working on a NASA research team and any other research team. Some noteworthy items are the safety forms and instruction protocols, as well as the data record-keeping guidelines. The latter is interesting because it’s a constant reminder that the data we collect is part of a greater dataset – one being culled for ease of transcription and interpretation by project members outside of the group we work with in the field. It creates a sort of data language that we all share. Curating and documenting data products is also a focus of my primary research project (NSF MT EPSCoR CREWS). With “big data” becoming more commonplace, it makes sense that these items, or aspects of them, are a focus across different government-funded research projects.

A day in the field on the NASA SnowEx project for me, as a student with additional motivations to investigate snow in prairie environments, includes taking samples of snow at points where we map snow depth across the site and in snow pits we dig. I am interested in the water isotopic values of the snow and how they change over time and space in a prairie environment, with the motivation to better understand snow contributions to soil water for crop uptake and nutrient cycling. The samples I collect are analyzed in the lab isotopic values of the hydrogen and oxygen atoms that make up the snow water molecules. The variation in these values tell us about the origin of the water molecule as well as transformation processes it may have undergone, such as sublimation.

My favorite part of the research so far has been seeing and feeling the changes in snow depth and density along these transects as I walk them. I look forward to placing the water isotope value results at the GPS locations they were sampled to see if and how the snow is changing chemically across this landscape. I have always been a more visual learner, so witnessing things unfold in real time and experiencing them in the field really resonates with me and enhances my understanding of what is going on in the environment. Experiential learning opportunities like this one, and like most research that involves field sampling and collection, are incredibly valuable for building relationships among the people involved, as well as building a robust skill-set from accurate data collection to interpretation and understanding for each individual.

SnowEx researchers Caitlin Mitchell and Marika Feduschak investigate the physical characteristics of the shallow prairie snow. Credit: GEOSWIRL (Geospatial Snow, Water & Ice Resources Lab) / Montana State University
SnowEx researchers Caitlin Mitchell and Marika Feduschak measuring the physical characteristics of the shallow prairie snow. Credit: GEOSWIRL (Geospatial Snow, Water & Ice Resources Lab) / Montana State University

Ross Palomaki, 2nd year PhD student in Earth Sciences

I have really enjoyed working at the CARC SnowEx field site. Most of my personal and research experience with snow has been in the mountains, and this prairie site has offered a new perspective on snow as a water resource. Seeing and measuring the drifted snowbanks in person has prompted some interesting discussion on spatial variability and sensor resolution.

There is not really a “typical” day at the CARC – most of our activities are dictated by the weather. I am part of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, or drone) operations team, and our Structure-from-Motion photogrammetry (using photography to map distances between objects) flights have been shut down numerous times by wind and blowing snow. It’s a great feeling to get a clear and (somewhat) calm day up there and complete all the planned flight missions.

I am looking forward to the upcoming data analysis, especially the opportunity to compare our site to the sites in the mountains. Hopefully we will have the opportunity to meet our fellow SnowEx teams in person someday.