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Field Notes: Grand Mesa, Colorado

Season 1May 11, 2020

Snowmobile rides. Deep-sea dives. Forest treks. NASA experts travel to some amazing environments, from the very hot to the very cold, to learn more about our planet. Jessica Merzdorf, Earth science writer, recaps a February field campaign in Grand Mesa, Colorado.

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About the Episode

Snowmobile rides. Deep-sea dives. Forest treks. NASA experts travel to some amazing environments, from the very hot to the very cold, to learn more about our planet. Jessica Merzdorf, Earth science writer, recaps a February field campaign in Grand Mesa, Colorado.

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HOST PADI BOYD: Snowmobile rides, deep-sea dives, forest hikes… NASA experts travel to some amazing places to learn more about our planet. In this bonus episode, join Jessica Merzdorf, science writer, on her journey to Grand Mesa, Colorado.

[MUSIC | Desperate in Karpaz by Carlile]

[Ambient Noise & Jessica Walking in Snow]

[MUSIC | Sunny Dew by Maksim Tyutmanov & Victoria Beits ]

JESSICA MERZDORF: When you step off the snowmobile and you’re looking around you, you are in a flat, vast expanse of white. Small clumps of trees here and there, but your first sensation is of this giant tabletop of perfect pure white snow. My name is Jessica Merzdorf, I am an Earth Science writer and I just spent three days out in the field…

[Snowmobile & Jessica Walking in Snow]

JESSICA MERZDORF: A field campaign is when scientists are measuring something in the Earth environment typically , where they have to physically go and be there and take those measurements themselves. A field campaign can take place on an island, or by the ocean, or in the snow, or on a mountain. NASA scientists go all over the world and to all sorts of different environments from the very hot to the very cold.

JESSICA MERZDORF: I went to Grand Mesa, Colorado, with the SnowEX 2020 team. SnowEx is a project that is researching snow properties. So depth and density, particle size, that sort of thing, using a variety of different instruments on the ground and from the air.

JESSICA MERZDORF: NASA’s interested in snow for a couple different reasons. It’s really important to the Earth’s ecosystem. It regulates temperature and climate because it reflects sunlight back out of the atmosphere. And it’s also important from a water perspective. If you live in an area where you get a lot of snow, you may rely on snow for your drinking water during the spring and summer and fall… When solar energy comes in, the snow reflects some of it back out. It also absorbs some and the amount of snow and how reflectant it is plays an important role in regulating Earth’s global temperature.

JESSICA MERZDORF: My job on the campaign was to simply record what the scientists were doing. What are the scientists doing in the morning? What does the sky look like today? What is the weather? Every day, or almost every day, I tried to record an audio diary…

[MUSIC | Crystallize by James Joshua Otto] [Fade into the entry]


JESSICA MERZDORF: My name is Jessica Mersdorf, it is very late at night and I travelled for 12 hours today… I’m very excited. I’m excited to tell the story of our NASA field campaigns because science, really, it’s a dynamic process, it’s a living process with real people.

[Fade out of the entry]


JESSICA MERZDORF: This was my first field campaign and I wanted to capture as many of those memories as I could. I wanted to remember what I was feeling like on each day, what was I nervous about going into it? What was… unexpected?

[Fade into the entry]


JESSICA MERZDORF: Tomorrow night I will be up at Grand Mesa, so looking forward to checking in then!

[Fade out of the entry]


[Crystallize fades out]

JESSICA MERZDORF: The scientists daily field locations could only be accessed by snowmobile. The morning that we were supposed to take the snowmobile ride happened to be the morning that we were recovering from altitude sickness. So, I came down to the lodge that morning very nervous about getting onto a snowmobile. In order to cover as much ground as possible, the team drove very quickly… So, we got on the snowmobile…

[Snowmobile, Wind & Lodge Natural Sound]

JESSICA MERZDORF: We went up very steep hills, we went around very sharp curves, we would hit bumps that would throw you up and down…

JESSICA MERZDORF: When you get off the snowmobile, and you’re standing near the field site, you really have a sense of standing on this giant white tabletop where there are no other humans in the world except for the people you have around you.


JESSICA MERZDORF: SnowEx has two components. There’s the airborne component and the ground component. In the air, our primary instrument is called SWE-SARR, snow water equivalent synthetic aperture radar and radiometer. On the ground, the measurements that are taken by SWE-SARR also taken by scientists on snowmobiles…


JESSICA MERZDORF: Scientists are driving in very tight clockwise spirals in the snow and they wind up with these giant crop-circle looking things. Pits are often dug in the center of the spiral and then they would sit in the snow pits and take the rest of these measurements by hand. The SnowEx team had 146 planned snow pits and they wound up with 153. You’ll see scientists around the pit who are on skis or on snowshoes. They’re taking additional measurements of snow depth, snow particles and so forth that you can’t take down in the pit.

JESSICA MERZDORF: The snow pits are important because some of the scientists’ measurements have to do with the layers in the snow and how it changes from the surface down to the ground. The snow that’s up on top is very light and fluffy, it’s fresh, it’s new, it’s just fallen within the last couple of days. If you go down a little bit, there’s a layer where it’s been packed tightly by the wind… Further down, it’s even more dense and there’s more water in the snow that’s closer to the ground.

[MUSIC | Blue Morning by Sebastien Girard]

JESSICA MERZDORF: When I was up there, I felt a lot of conflicting feelings about the landscape.

[Fade into the diary entry]


JESSICA MERZDORF: This is Jessica, I think it’s around 11 o’clock Thursday morning.

JESSICA MERZDORF: It’s been — I don’t even know how to describe how this experience has been. It’s been harder than many things I’ve ever done in my life.

JESSICA MERZDORF: Adjusting to the altitude, adjusting to the temperatures, it is a very harsh environment up here. It is cold, the wind blows…

[Fade out of the entry]


JESSICA MERZDORF: Part of me was very cold, put off by how isolated it felt, by how there were so few people up there…The people that you’re out there with really do feel like your lifeline. I’ve never been in a place where everywhere you look is just as beautiful as what you saw a moment before.

[Fade into the diary entry]


JESSICA MERZDORF: It’s been so beautiful and rewarding and getting to just see the energy of these scientists who are out here in these conditions for a week, two weeks, three weeks collecting this data, it’s — it’s just mind blowing. I’m really proud of myself, I’m really proud of the way that I’ve adjusted and adapted and stuck it out and tried new things and gone new places. And, you know, part of me is really excited to get home to the warmer temperatures and back to sea-level elevation. And another part of me is really sad to leave ’cause there, there is something magic up here that I have never found anywhere else.


[Fade out of the entry]

HOST PADI BOYD: This is NASA’s Curious Universe and you’re listening to our Field Notes series, where we send scientists and science communicators into the field… with a recorder.

The Curious Universe team includes Elizabeth Tammi and Micheala Sosby. Our executive producer is Katie Atkinson. Special thanks to Mariah Cox. If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving a review, tweeting about the show @NASA and sharing it with a friend.