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).