Wednesday, February 14, 2007

My Dear Students: What to Know about Snow

When we arrived in the briefing room for the weather report (minus 37 degrees C including wind chill) at 6:45, we heard we’d spend the morning in the classroom, learning procedures, then eat lunch and bundle up for an afternoon in the cold. I had kitchen duty and had so far arrived five minutes late to every meeting, and so I ate as fast as I could, found the missing five minutes in the fact that my watch wasn’t set right, and washed the dishes. I arrived just in time to join what would become my Group.

Kate is from England. She just got a degree in medicine and she knows quite a lot about being precise. She takes good notes and asks good questions. Alan is from Massachusetts. He has a lot of energy, and three older brothers and seems willing to laugh at most of my jokes. He also likes to dream and scheme about how to make the world a better place for everyone. I find it hard to sit still, and I can learn and remember no more than three facts at a time. This was my Group.

What came next was a full three hours (count them -- THREE hours) of directions during which I was exposed to (I will not say learned -- that came later, in the pit) more ways to measure snow than I knew existed. I did my best not to distract my group too much when my overloaded mind needed to do anything but listen. (I won’t tell you what I did instead of listening!) Our kits for the afternoon had no fewer than fifteen different tools. The tools, used correctly would measure the snow’s depth, temperature, crystalline structure, density and hardness. Some of these we’d have to measure a dozen different times and ways in every three by four foot pit we dug.

After lunch, I put on my socks and my socks and my socks. And my long johns and my long johns and my long johns. Then came windpants, hat, parka and mitts and the goggles that were a hometown donation from Smith Optics. Then came the boots. I grunted my way into them, only to figure out later that I needed to stop at the second pair of socks. The third pair made things too tight: later my feet would be cold.

We trundled out to the garage to the snowmobiles and the qamatiks. A qamatik is a plywood box with sides chin high when you sit down in it. Even Anglos use a lot of Inuit words here. Those words are the best way to say a lot of things. We loaded in.

In less than ten minutes we got to the site and my Group was assigned an intricate and complex pit to dig and measure. I started by putting down one of the most expensive and specialized tools. Alan buried it with our excavated snow. Of course we didn’t know this yet. I stood around wondering what to do with myself while Alan went at the pit. I could hardly remember the purpose of any of the tools and we hadn’t done any talking and planning about who would do what, except to share that none of us remembered much of the directions and we all hoped that together we’d remember most of it. I offered to take over digging and found out I didn’t have the technique and handed back the shovel, and then tried taking core samples only to find it impossible to get the tube out of the snowpack with snow in it. I abandoned that to try testing the hardness of the snow, which would take that expensive and buried tool. After a trip to the snowmobiles we realized it must be buried, all of which distracted all of us from each of our measuring tasks. Kate took over thermometers, pulling them out, and forgetting to record temperatures. Then we had some trouble with the depth of our pit which seemed to vary wildly.

Meanwhile the groups around us were wrapping up all forty or so measurements and we began to realize that this intricate and complex pit might get the better of us. Luckily, we weren’t above getting help, and managed to wrap things up an hour before before sundown. That gave us time for the next pit, which went much better. The three of us fell into an unspoken rhythm. The snow in that pit was different. It was lighter, and it lacked the three ice layers of the other pits. It was 42 cm deep instead of 59 cm deep and had only five distinct layers instead of eight.

Why bother to know so much about snow? Well, on this local scale it matters to voles and caribou. If it’s too hard or deep in the wrong places they can’t get to their food. On a global scale, it’s part of of the cryosphere. (Look up the roots of this word, and you’ll know exactly what it means.) The cryosphere plays an enormous and little understood role in Earth’s climate. Changes in what’s frozen will ripple through the next century. A comical afternoon of floundering through measuring the snow in a pit the size of a wood box adds a day’s data gathering to what we know about this global system.

(PS -- If you are wondering how cold I was today, look up the formula for converting C to F, calculate it at -37C and post the result as a comment.)


Kendra said...

37 degrees F = -34.60000000000001 degrees C.

Hi Ms. Dean!

~Kendra Wilson

Hawaiian surfer dude said...

Period one found that it was -34.6 degrees f.

Debra Berg said...

We are enjoying your articles. -37 degrees C is -34.6 degrees F Have fun and don't get frostbitten!

Columbia Lions Environmental Group