SIUE Students Seek Snow in Silverton

SIUE Silverton Field Study students inside the quinzhee photo provided by Kaitlin McElroyThis semester SIUE geography 408 students continued a long standing tradition by participating in the Geography Field Program in Silverton Colorado. The program is a joint research venture involving eight universities designed to teach students the basics of mountain geography and cryospheric science.

The program was started over thirty years ago by Arizona State University’s Melvin Marcus; it became a part of the SIUE curriculum fourteen years ago when Marcus’s former student Mark Hildebrandt became a faculty member at SIUE. The field program now includeds students and faculty from Arizona State University, Casper College, Colorado State University, the University of Colorado, Minnesota State University, Northern Arizona University, SIUE, and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

“If we understand the snow in that area we have a better understanding of the hydrology in the south west,” Hildebrandt explained, “Snow there has a tremendous impact in terms of agriculture and the water supply.”

During their visit students study climatology of snow and avalanches, snow hydrology, avalanche mechanics and hazards, snow morphology, and snow stratigraphy. By researching snow in areas like Silverton we get a greater understanding of the water supply for much of the south western United States, and in tern the agriculture. This research also helps understand the impact humans are having on the environment, and effects of climate change.

SIUE Silverton Field Study Students on top of Quinzhee image courtesy of Kaitlin McElroy Another big challenge for students is learning how to operate in high altitude conditions. Many of the SIUE students participating had never seen mountains before and had to learn how to acclimatise to operating at 9300 feet above sea level. The field school also covered safety practices and survival techniques. A number of students built a quinzhee, and emergency snow shelter developed by the Athabaskans, and spent the night in the field.

“On the first day, after shoveling just a little bit of snow they were winded,” Hildebrandt shared, “by the third day of field work they usually have the hang of it.”

Hildebrandt shared that participation in field programs like these are a passion of his. He feels that they provide an invaluable learning experience that can’t be simulated in a classroom, taking pride in continuing a tradition he participated in as a student.

“It’s one of those trips in which students learn more in the first two or three days than they do in most courses over the entire semester,” Hildebrandt explained, “I think in many ways nature is the best classroom we have.”

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