Field Notes: Snow Science in Switzerland

In February and March 2018, Freshwater Initiative graduate students Ryan Currier and Justin Pflug from the University of Washington Mountain Hydrology Research Group, had the opportunity to take snow research to the field at the Institute of Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) in Davos, Switzerland. Going out to the field took on a whole new meaning in the highest elevation city of Switzerland, with field sites only minutes from their front door. Here, Justin tells us a little bit about the friends and connections made in the field, their time at SLF, and lunch breaks spent on the slopes.

We traveled to Davos to collaborate with the SLF Snow Hydrology Research Group. Much of this group’s current work focuses on forest-snow interactions like sub-canopy albedo, snow interception, wind deposition, and forest micrometeorology. Due to our overlapping research interests and an exceptionally good Swiss snow-year, much of our time was spent tackling issues of forest-snow observation both at the SLF campus and in the field.

Snow accumulation and melt are commonly measured across different landscapes and vegetation types with a number of terrestrial, airborne, and space-based remote-sensing platforms. Among the most popular is airborne light diffraction and ranging (lidar) which has been used for widespread snow depth observation in a number of large-scale snow campaigns. However, accuracy of airborne snow depth measurements in forests have yet to be fully vetted. Before using airborne snow depth measurements to understand forest-snow processes, validation of these observations is a necessary first step. We therefore combined ground validation data from the United States (Colorado) with airborne data from Southeastern Switzerland. We’re still busy crunching the numbers, but the results seem to indicate that airborne measurements of snow depth are reliable. Prior to concluding this project, graduate student Giulia Mazzotti (picture, left below in orange jacket) from SLF will join us this summer in Seattle. Make sure to say hi if you are around campus!

Field collection of below-canopy albedo (left) and movable meteorological stations (right).

During our time at SLF, we also spent time assisting other related projects in the field. Fieldwork included moving mobile meteorological stations (above, right), collecting below and above-canopy albedo from airborne (below) and ground-based equipment (above, left), collecting snow depth transects from ground penetrating radar, and observing sub-surface snow properties by digging snow-pits. We were impressed by both the volume of the data collected and the technology used to collect it. This work provided us with motivation and ideas for future field campaigns in the Pacific Northwest.

Octocopter drone used to collect upward and downward albedo above the canopy. Collections were simultaneous to a below-canopy albedo measurement.

Although we worked hard, we found ample time to enjoy Davos and the surrounding mountains. For those working at SLF, ski-touring and cross-country skiing were unanimously considered “lunchtime activities.” We did our best to keep up and skied frequently, especially considering we were within a comfortable walk to three different ski resorts from our front door (in ski boots). Other adventures included excursions to St. Moritz to watch horse races on ice, Zermatt to see the Matterhorn, trips to the Davos pools, and HC (Hockey Club) Davos hockey games. We also enjoyed time outside of work with coworkers on ski-tours and at dinner nights with traditional Swiss dishes like raclette and fondue. We feel truly grateful to have been afforded such an amazing experience and look forward to continuing to work with our collaborators in Davos, Switzerland.

Justin Pflug skiing with Italy in the background (left), and Ryan snowboarding with the Matterhorn in the background (right).

Science, Water, and Basketball at Campbell Farm: Tales from an Alternative Spring Break

By Sally Landefeld

With finals in the rear-view mirror, most University of Washington (UW) students can think of little else but those two magical words that have been teasing them all winter: Spring Break.  While my friends took off for Cabo, slept in past noon, or backpacked on the Olympic Peninsula, I climbed into a UW van destined for a decidedly more unusual spring break location.  Armed with sleeping bags, grocery lists, and lesson plans, I joined a group of UW students traveling to some of Washington’s less populated areas as part of the UW Project Pipeline’s Alternative Spring Break program.

Photo Credit: Zihan Cao, University of Washington

Project Pipeline’s Alternative Spring Break program offers UW students a chance to contribute to and learn from rural and tribal communities around Washington.  By spending a week in K-12 classrooms across the state, participants have the opportunity to immerse themselves in a new learning environment and cultivate an interest in science in young students.  This year, the ASB program sent UW students to Curlew, Oroville, Brewster, Mattawa, Herrah, Omak, and Forks (among others).  My van headed to Campbell Farm in Wapato, WA, located in the heart of the Yakama Indian Reservation.

For the past quarter, our fearless Project Pipeline team leaders helped us understand how to interact, communicate, and share our science knowledge with middle school and high school students.  Now, we wanted to give these young students an opportunity to connect faces and personalities with a place they had always heard about: the University of Washington.

Along with twenty-two other UW students, I spent afternoons at the farm with a group of middle school students from the Yakama Tribal School (YTS).  During a preliminary visit to Campbell Farm over winter, the students had surprised us with their excitement, curiosity, engagement, and thirst for science knowledge.  The first day was no exception.  The students showed up that first afternoon eager to learn and filled with all kinds of questions.

On Monday, we taught lessons about the structure and properties of water. Pure joy and excitement crossed the young students’ faces when they were able to answer questions about the energy, attractive and repellent forces, and polar charge of water.  We flew through our lesson plan, teaching more than we had planned.

On Tuesday, we introduced the concept of biomass into our conversation about water.  We examined roots under the microscope and started to think about the role that plants play in the water cycle.  On Wednesday, we considered water on a walk around the farm, discussing how the rain, wind, orchard soil, and animal manure were all related to the water cycle.  Students practiced making field observations by recording what they learned in their scientific notebooks.

A diagram of the water cycle by Kwalani from Yakama Nation Tribal School depicting solar radiation, condensation, precipitation, freezing, snowmelt runoff, infiltration, evapotranspiration, groundwater flow, evaporation, and surface runoff.

Using those observations, we compiled a diagram of as many water-cycle processes as we could think of.  We asked the students to bring a little creativity to their science by drawing posters to depict the water cycle, illustrating at least three major processes.

On Thursday, the final day of our program, students used plastic water bottles and lights powered by a small, rotating attachment to build mini-wind turbines, which provided them a brief introduction into the world of civil engineering.

After a week of talking science, we needed a way to decompress.  I’d heard repeatedly throughout the week: “Basketball is life on the reservation.”  So naturally, the students put us through our paces with a few games of Bump or Knock-Out, where players line up and race to make a shot before the person in front of them.  I saw just how true this “Basketball is life” statement really was; the students kicked our butts on the court.

At the end of the last day, parents and siblings of the young students came to celebrate the week with a feast of traditional Indian fry bread, salmon, corn, and a deer dumpling stew.  The students proudly presented their water-cycle posters and performed a water cycle skit, where each student played the role of water molecule, to an audience of loved ones.  Connecting with both the students and their families was a powerful experience for us as instructors.  We were amazed to find that we had shared not only our science knowledge in the past week, but also our hearts.

Acknowledgements: This project is supported by NASA and Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline. UW Project Pipeline sponsors include Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, The Seattle Times, AT&T, Banner Bank, BECU.