Four University of Vermont undergraduates huff uphill on aluminum snowshoes, deep in the U.S. Forest Service's Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in the White Mountains of central New Hampshire. They've been working all day taking snow samples for Beverley Wemple, professor of geography, who has employed them through a National Science Foundation grant that supports undergraduates participating in research.
They're tired. Their boots and legs are sodden.
"It's definitely hard work," says Hedda Peterson, '10. But some inner sun still shines. Asked why she is doing this, she pauses. "It's meaningful to be part of scholarly research," she says.
And Wemple's scholarly research is meaningful to many. Among other things, she studies snow. More specifically, she is interested in how forests in the eastern United States affect melt rates and distribution of snow.
"There is a real need for this information beyond science. Anyone running dams or predicting water supplies for cities needs to know about runoff," Wemple says. And that means knowing about how much water is held in the snow pack and where it's located.
Western forests have been studied and found to have a major impact on the snow pack there. "But in the East, they haven't been studied much. Many people say that forests in the East don't have a big effect or intercept much snow because they lose their leaves," Wemple says, "I'm questioning that."
Which is why she has started a study here at Hubbard Brook. Wemple's hope is that next year she'll team with two colleagues in engineering and computer science to do the same snow measuring remotely using wireless sensors.
But, for now, "the students are worker bees," Wemple says, "there is a lot to be learned — and there's a lot of grunt work. I mean, that's science!"