When is the snow going to melt? The alpine plants I study will not begin seriously growing until the ground is bare and the soil is unfrozen. I want to examine how the microclimate around these plants changes through this transition and into the growing season, but it’s hard to know what’s going on from deep in the valley below.
Installing a weather station next to my research site would solve this problem, but it’s been too dangerous and difficult to do it – until yesterday.
My assistant and I spent some of the past few days in the shop building a small temporary near-ground frame for a datalogger and a set of probes that will provide information on the light, moisture, and temperature conditions at my site, and then some more time thinking through all of the tools and computers we would need to set up the instruments. Then I recruited one more scientist, and we headed up a nearby mountain road as far as a vehicle could travel.
We climbed up with our gear on snowshoes, through a magical landscape of soft and packed snow, some tinted red by high-elevation algae.
An hour later we gained the final ridge line and were there, nearly on top of the world. Thunderstorms were forecast for late in the day, so we quickly set to work putting the station in the ground. My site is on a south-facing slope, so I had hoped it would have been snow-free by mid-June. Unfortunately it wasn’t, but fortunately we brought along a large shovel.
We started into the ground and quickly made it through the top layer of fresh snow, an icy layer likely from a May melt-refreeze, and then deep through many more layers. We took guesses on the snowpack depth – Sean thought waist-deep; Rozalia, navel-deep; and I, chest-deep. We were all wrong. We cut through at least eight feet of snow before finally scraping bottom and seeing the rocky substrate that constitutes the soil on this mountain. A hammer and soil knife served to break through the soil to make space for buried instruments.
We then unloaded our instruments, screw-mounted everything to the frame, weather-sealed the data-logger and programmed it for interval logging with a field laptop, then put the whole apparatus into the ground.
We anchored the whole system into the rock with metal screws. It was very difficult for me to maneuver in such a small space, but we didn’t have the enthusiasm or time to make the hole any larger!
Once everything was set and secured, we began back-filling the hole with snow with me standing in the bottom to redistribute snow and ensure that the instruments would not be crushed. It felt very much like being buried alive.
Disturbing the snowpack in this way of course will change the melt dynamics, but I am sure that this weather data will be more accurate than if we had left the system exposed. The manufacturer has assured me that the system will survive these conditions, and I very much hope they are correct.
Now the final product is buried and waiting for the summer to arrive. It’s hard to imagine bare soil and growing plants, like in my memories of last year’s plot setup, but I am sure they are there under the eight feet of snow. Waiting.