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Snow lovers take it up a notch; grad students seize upon SNARL’s hydrology course

March 25, 2014

A graduate student from a U.C. Santa Barbara snow hydrology course this week climbs up to check out the instruments at the snow study site on Mammoth Mountain. Photo/Lyra Pierotti

Mammoth Mountain is for snow lovers of every kind. But there are some who might love it more than others, such as this week’s slough of graduate students at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL) near Convict Lake.

“Everyone thinks we get to go skiing all week,” said student Julia Morton. “But we have to learn technical things like fracture mechanics.”

During the week, students will spend as many as 56 hours learning about snow, said Jeff Dozier, PhD, who has been running this snow hydrology course at SNARL off and on (though mostly on) since the 1970s.

“I find it exhilarating,” said Dozier. “It’s the most enjoyable course I teach.”

On Tuesday, March 25, the students spent all morning on Mammoth Mountain learning about instruments at SNARL’s snow study site near McCoy Station (an out-of the way study site closed to traffic to preserve the snow), then digging pits in the snow to evaluate layers in the snowpack and how that relates to avalanche instability.

That afternoon, lecturers threw around words like “energy balance,” “albedo,” “sintering,” and “metamorphism." After lectures, students rolled right into a communal dinner, capped with another evening lecture.

And somewhere in their busy week, students presumably will find time to study for their three hour final exam on Saturday morning.

The weeklong course is geared toward graduate students at U.C. Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

For this week, Dozier barely had time to do anything else, like answer emails. But, he said, it’s always fun to teach a field course.

In this course, students learn a lot about snow. But they also gain a visceral understanding of where information comes from. Field work, for this reason, is a tradition in the earth sciences, Dozier said.

“How do people do avalanche forecasts? Runoff forecasts? What goes into a weather forecast? We tend to use a lot of that information without understanding how it’s developed.”

 

Inspired by climbing

Dozier was not always on the academic track. He flunked out in his first attempt at college: climbing consumed him.

He climbed extensively around the world, and enough in Yosemite to have a dome in Tuolumne named in his honor: Dozier Dome.

But it was an experience in the Hindu Kush in 1974 that jarred him into his lifelong interest in snow and avalanches.

While crossing a steep slope, he and his two partners wondered aloud whether that slope might avalanche.

“We had no clue,” he said. “At 20,000 feet you’re sort of stupid anyway.”

In 1977, Dozier took an avalanche course from Rod Newcomb, a renowned avalanche expert who had founded the American Avalanche Institute only a few years prior.

“In climbing, we learn to manage risk,” Dozier said. “But you have to know what risk is!”

 

Inspired students follow a legacy

Bert Davis skipped his first midterm in Dozier’s class to go surfing.

It was the early 1970s, and he had been having a hard time with Dozier’s lectures.

“The class was kind of an enigma,” he said, “so I decided to bag the midterm and ask for forgiveness later.”

When he went to see Dozier that afternoon, he told him the flat-out truth: the surf that morning was double overhead.

Dozier asked if he was ready now for the midterm. Davis had studied hard, and gladly took the exam on the spot.

“He and I have been buds ever since,” Davis said, who is lecturing and helping out with this week’s course.

Davis’ card now reads: Robert E. Davis, PhD. Director U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL). (The snow study site the students visited on Mammoth Mountain is a joint project between CRREL and SNARL.)

As an undergrad debating what to do with the rest of his life, Davis said his friendship with Dozier, combined with a new master’s program in geography, convinced him to continue with school.

He completed all of his degrees, including his PhD and a post doc, with Dozier at U.C. Santa Barbara and SNARL—in addition to achieving high certifications as a ski instructor at Mammoth Mountain and Tamarack.

         

The next generation

The students in Dozier’s class this week span a wide variety of backgrounds.

Julia Morton, now a student at the Bren School, guided for Outward Bound for many years.

Ben Trustman, a student from the Desert Research Institute, the environmental research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education, also came to Mammoth for the course.

Trustman is developing new instruments, such as one to measure snow water equivalent. It’s not as simple as one inch of water means a foot of snow, as people often think, he said.

Zach Tolby, one of the meteorologists from the National Weather Service in Reno, came down for the week to help teach about mountain meteorology.

Chatting with some of the students about being a meteorologist, Tolby lamented, “I get yelled at when it doesn’t snow, but I never get any credit when it does.”

 

From domes to Oscars

If having a dome in Yosemite National Park named for him wasn’t enough, Dozier is also now the winner of an Oscar for best animated feature film for his help on Frozen (find his name at the very end of the credits).

Dozier helped explain the optical properties of snow to animators, giving them computer codes to help with their animations, he said.

In his studies, Dozier said he tries to couple what he can measure from satellites to what he can measure on the ground, so he can estimate snow properties over whole mountain ranges.

Working in the Sierra Nevada, they have ground data to validate what he thinks he sees from space. Here, Dozier said he thinks their methods can help improve forecasts of the spring snowmelt.

His bigger goal, however, is to apply these methods to analyze the snowpack in more remote mountain ranges with little infrastructure, and where water resource security is, or may become, an issue.

“Like the Hindu Kush,” he said.

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