Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

Three days in the field help grad students bridge observations and data

Following the pandemic, CIRES students venture out of the lab and classroom

For most PhD students in environmental science, getting outside into the field for hands-on experience is an important part of their graduate career. But for those who began their journey through academia at the onset of the pandemic, many opportunities have been limited. But this May, one professor decided it was time to get her students real-life experience by taking them on a four-day field trip to a remote research station up high in Colorado’s mountains.

At the end of the road in Crested Butte, Colorado, a small group of PhD students lift large, heavy packs onto their backs. 

Today is the start of a three-day field trip at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in the small town of Gothic, a four-mile trek through mud and snow.         

Jennifer Kay planned the trip for PhD students in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder where she is an associate professor and CIRES fellow

Today, eight students are heading into the field to learn more about the NOAA-led SPLASH campaign, a two-year project collecting data on wind, snow, and air temperatures. Kay says there are two goals for the trip. The first is to have fun and unwind after a long semester hunched over computer screens. 

The second…

“ to connect what you see with your eyeballs to these state-of-the-art instruments that are here measuring the snow the rain and the soil moisture,” says Kay. “I think they are 400-odd things being measured up here.”

Most of the students in Kay’s group work with physics-based climate modeling programs using data.

“Our group focuses on clouds and precipitation and surface albedo, mostly in the polar regions, and that’s a lot of same measurements being made here in the high alpine in the Rockies, and so it connects in a lot of ways even if the questions are different,” Kay says. 

On the road to Gothic, Sean Leister, and Genna Clow tell me they are excited to explore their work through a new lens. 

“We all work on a computer mainly using coding to decipher these scientific problems,” says Leister. 

Leister sees value in taking some time outside to understand how observations are collected—a rare opportunity for students during the pandemic.

“But most of us in the Kay Group never really see the actual collection of the data, and we use a lot of model data how are these observations used in the models,” Leister says. 

Clow agrees - and it will be nice to step away from the computer.  

“This is my first time out in the field seeing different instruments, so that’s really cool,” says Clow. “And also—it’s just gorgeous out here so I’m excited to see some of the scenery.”

It’s day two and the students wear snowshoes as they fall in line behind Gijs de Boer and Joe Sedlar to the first research site a short snowshoe away. De Boer is the principal investigator on the SPLASH campaign and Sedlar is a research scientist. 

After two miles of sloshing through the snow, they arrive at the site where the Atmospheric Surface Flux Station sits on top of a picnic table to keep some distance from the snow below. The high-tech instrument measures the surface energy budget, the exchange of energy between land and atmosphere. 

De Boer explains the various parts of the instrument. It’s laden with sensors, a sonic anemometer, and LI-COR, similar to the instruments the students saw during a short stop on their way to the trailhead the day before. 

While de Boer talks, students jot down notes in pocket notebooks while Kay probes them with questions.

“I want to hear some ideas from the group about what kind of measurements you think these instruments are making today,” Kay says. “What if you were to look at the data later? What would you expect to see?”

Students share ideas: wind, changes in snow temperatures, and effects from the sun. Megan Thompson-Munson studies firn, when snow turns to glacial ice, on the Greenland Ice Sheet. And she’s finding many similarities between her work and the SPLASH project.

“It's really hard to get to these remote places like Greenland and Antarctica, where we have these big ice sheets,” she says. “But the processes that are happening in terms of atmospheric and snow surface processes are the very same, so we can use these nearby areas to better understand the processes that are happening elsewhere.”

Will Bertrand studies Arctic clouds and how they interact with the surface. In addition to a passion for science, they have an interest in collecting sound. 

“In college, I was in a music technology, music composition program, and a physics one too,” Bertrand says. “And so for me, doing environmental science, and thinking about nature in the world—listening to it—it's a big part of that for me.”

Bertrand peels away from the group to set up microphones and recording equipment next to a small creek. While they stay busy researching data collected in the Arctic, they hope to combine their passion for music and physics in the future. 

“In climate science, you know, communication is big,” says Bertrand. “And I think there's growing interest in creative climate communication as well. And so I'm thinking after my next paper that I'll take a step back and do a music project that's turning climate data into sound to try and communicate.”

As the third and final day comes to a close, students tromp through mud and bog two miles back to Gothic from the last field site. As the field trip winds down, both students and the researchers reflect on the experience. CIRES researcher Joe Sedlar says he enjoyed sharing two years of his work with the group. 

“Thank you for all coming out and visiting our site,” says Sedlar. “You all did really great,  it's not easy, it's hard work, but it's beautiful—and it's fun.”

And Jonah Shaw, one of the students, is walking away with a new perspective on the data he studies. 

“So I work with a lot of observations but I’m not making them,” says Shaw. “There's a lot of amazing science here, but something else that I think about is the people who are with who are deciding where to place the measurements, and how to make sure that we're getting them consistently. And that's something that I really take for granted.” 

During the final circle, a snowplow moves slowly in the distance, clearing the knee-deep slushy snow from the road. A collective sigh of relief washes over the group, knowing the walk out in the morning will be a little bit easier. 

This story was produced by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. Additional audio provided by Will Bertrand. 

CIRES at CU Boulder has partnered with NOAA since 1967.

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