Snow Tools

2/3/2012 4:28:11 PM

Snow Tools

Howling winds, frigid temperatures, deep darkness, blowing snow: these are common conditions for the North Slope of Alaska in February. We've packed our warm clothes and are ready to go for our study of snow on polar bear dens. Now it's time for Dr. Glen Liston, the snow scientist on our team, to pack his snow measuring equipment.

 Dr. Glen Liston measuring snow

Glen begins by meticulously gathering the necessary equipment to perform all needed snow measurements. He carefully looks over each instrument and tests them in a warm laboratory in Fairbanks. (It's easier to check for flaws and broken equipment in a warm lab than to discover that tools are broken when we're out on the cold tundra.)

One of the measurements we'll take will be the depth of the snow. We'll draw out a 100-meter measuring tape on each side of a snowdrift at a den site and will take depth measurements every two meters. We'll also use an ingenious tool called a MagnaProbe.

The MagnaProbe was invented by two scientists, Jon Holmgren and Dr. Matthew Stur of Snow-Hydro. It consists of a rod that's approximately 1.5 meters in length. At the end of the probe is a white basket that rides on the top of the snowpack. At the top of the probe is a white control button. Pushing this button automatically records the snow-depth measurement, storing it in a data box that's housed in a small backpack.

Magna Probe

Without the MagnaProbe, depth measurements would be much more difficult and time consuming. We'd have to write down all of the depth numbers with pencil and paper. And writing with mittens in subzero weather is a very difficult task to do!! The MagnaProbe is also hooked up to a GPS (global positioning system) that's carried in the same backpack. The GPS/MagnaProbe system records both the snow depth and the GPS coordinate simultaneously!

While on the tundra, we'll also dig snow pits in snowdrifts that are similar to the drifts with known polar bear dens. We've packed a snow shovel to dig them. We've also packed a saw in case the snow is extra hard from the driving wind and actually needs to be cut. In addition, we've packed a scale to measure the mass of the snow and obtain a density measurement. And finally, we use a cookie-cutter cube to obtain the volume of the snow (also part of the density measurement) and a whisk broom to brush off the snow to observe the layers in the snow pit.

Equipment for snow study

Thanks to Glen's meticulous work, our equipment is now packed and ready to be flown to Prudhoe Bay for the snow measurements to be recorded on polar bear dens. Our team will fly out early Friday morning from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, where we will start our snow measurements!

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