12 UCCS students study snow hydrology in Silverton, Colorado

UCCS students Rachel Johnson and Dylan Anderson crunch through the snow above Silverton, Colorado during their January 2020 Geography and Environmental Studies field studies course in snow hydrology.

Continuing a tradition established in the mid-1970’s, Brandon Vogt, associate professor of geography and environmental studies, brought 12 UCCS students to Silverton, Colorado to study snow hydrology over the winter break.

Over the eight days of the upper-level undergraduate capstone course, students collected data on snowpack metamorphism and mountain meteorological processes.

Sophomore Rachel Johnson throws a handful of snow into the air. Photo credit: Rachel Johnson, Matthias Learned and Dylan Anderson.

As part of their field study, the course also saw students following moose tracks through the snow and voluntarily spending the night in a quinzee – a hollow shelter made of hard-packed snow – at 9,000 feet of elevation.

“The whole of geography is represented in this place,” said Vogt. “During the course, the students have to search for the answer to their big research question not just through the materials I provide, but also in the community in Silverton. They have to search through books in the library and really immerse themselves in a different place, which can be an eye-opening experience. And the fact that it’s such an experiential learning opportunity, where they can get cold and wet, helps the course really stick.”

“That’s the core of the course – that experiential learning,” he continued. “Hopefully, after the course finishes, they present a poster at Mountain Lion Research Day. Owning these data and having research experience under their belts and on their resumes is really helpful for them if they apply for grad school.”

Students braved temperatures below -9 degrees Fahrenheit during their eight days above 9,000 feet in elevation. Photo credit: Natalie Luther.

For Rachel Johnson, a sophomore in the course, the opportunity to take classwork into the field was a highlight.

“My favorite part of the class was applying my knowledge of meteorology, geology, geomorphology and hydrology to my own personal adventures,” she said. “We were given a lot of independence during the class, and so every time I was up hiking or collecting snow depths with my lab group, I was recalling everything that Brandon had taught us – looking for avalanche paths, evidence of an unstable snowpack, temperature inversions and more.”

“I came back much more knowledgeable on climate in the San Juan mountains, as well as the characteristics of snowpack and weather,” she continued. “And I woke up every morning to hike with some of the other students before breakfast. One morning, my friend Dylan and I woke up a little before 5:00 am and hiked just over 2,000 feet of vertical elevation on Kendall Peak. It was so worth the view of the Grand Turk, which is a nearby mountain. And we made it back in time for blueberry pancakes at 7:45!”

For Vogt, a highlight is seeing students work with UCCS alumnus Jeff Derry ’94, executive director of the snow science nonprofit Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies (CSAS).

Students Rachel Johnson, Matthias Learned and Dylan Anderson pose with frosty beards and eyelashes. Photo credit: Rachel Johnson, Matthias Learned and Dylan Anderson.

“Jeff is an alumnus of the Geography and Environmental Studies department, and as they work with him and the CSAS, the students really connect with the kinds of things they can do with a degree from the department,” Vogt said. “They see, for example, they can become a snow scientist.”

Johnson seconds that. After graduation, students in the class plan to continue advanced studies in geographical topics ranging from water management and snow hydrology to avalanche paths.

As for herself, “I would absolutely love to work for one of the organizations in Silverton,” Johnson said, “whether it’s the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center or the CSAS.”

Vogt, who earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. in geography at Arizona State University, traveled to Silverton for his own snow and ice field study course in the early 2000’s following the spirit of ASU professor of geography Mel Marcus, who taught the course for over 20 years. Today, some former ASU geography graduate students – like Vogt – keep the tradition strong by continuing to bring students from their respective universities to Silverton for field study.

Students interested in taking the course over the Winterim should see Vogt’s academic site for more details.

Photo credits: Rachel Johnson, Matthias Learned, Dylan Anderson and Natalie Luther.

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