As most of you are likely well aware, CU Boulder’s campus is located only 30 minutes from some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the continental U.S. Like many hikers, cyclists, skiers and snowboarders, the university takes advantage of this dramatic landscape with its Mountain Research Station located 20 minutes north of Nederland, Colorado. The station is a fully staffed research facility that is run year-round, and hosts scientists studying alpine ecology, climate, hydrology, geomorphology, and glaciology (fun fact: CU researchers have exclusive access to two glaciers, one of which is the largest in the state) to name a few. The station is organized as part of CU’s Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) and has been conducting research in the Indian Peaks for over one hundred years.
This spring, I was fortunate enough to receive a position as a snow intern at the station. The snow internship program has been running for over 20 years and hosts undergraduates conducting snow science on Niwot Ridge above the station. It’s a fantastic opportunity to obtain research experience, apply snow science skills (a pre-requisite is taking GEOG 4321 – Snow Hydrology), and enjoy the beauty of the Front Range in winter. The work snow interns conduct ensures the continuation of ongoing data collection at Niwot. While it sounds simple, the snow dataset at Niwot is critical for the long-term observation of the alpine ecosystem, one that is rapidly changing in the face of climate change. For example, using data from Niwot researchers have found that the timing of snow melt occurs two weeks earlier today than it did at the beginning of the 20th century. This shift has numerous repercussions for plants and animals on Niwot, something that is certainly of interest for ecologists. Thus, using the information available from our datasets on snow, we can collaborate with ecologists to determine if changes in snowpack are inducing changes in biota.
A typical day for a snow intern involves getting up around 5 AM every Friday to make the drive to the station. Although it’s early, my five coworkers and I have all come to enjoy these weekly outings and enjoying the mountains before most people are awake. There are often clouds that sweep down the ridgelines from Niwot, creating ethereal lighting at sunrise that stirs one awake better than crisp black coffee. We ski up (using skins, an adhesive nylon strip placed on the ski bases that grips the snow) to our two sites: C1 and the Saddle. At each of these locations, we dig a snowpit to the ground. Once the pit is excavated, we take density cuts every 10 centimeters through the snowpack. These measurements are used to calculate snow-water equivalent, or SWE, which describes the resulting height of a water layer produced from melting snow of a given depth. Additional observations about the varying snowpack layers are also noted. I find this especially interesting as an avid backcountry skier, as this tests my ability to assess whether a snowpack is conducive for producing avalanches, an obvious hazard for recreationalists. Among snow scientists, Colorado is infamous for its weak, shallow, and dangerous snowpack, making these observations particularly important. After we finish our measurements, we ski back down to the station. It’s never incredible skiing, but any day with skis on beats a day without.
One constant of working on Niwot is wind. We have been turned back multiple times, as winds on Niwot frequently top gusts of seventy miles per hour. At these speeds, much of the snow is blown right off the mountain. Conditions vary drastically between the mountain summits and the station, making risk evaluation essential. With high winds, visibility can drop to zero in an instant. Part of the internship included a Wilderness First Aid course, which taught us some of the necessary skills to work at a place like Niwot.
Having the privilege to work at the station has been one the most enjoyable experiences I have had in my time at CU. My fellow interns have become my close friends and we take pride in the work we do. For those interested, the snow internship is available through the Geography Department for course credit on an annual to biannual basis. Questions and inquiries about offerings can be directed to the Geography Department office: firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, I am happy to answer any questions about the program.