Snow Pit Stratigraphy

Stephan (Steve) G. Custer
Earth Sciences, Montana State University
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This is the first exercise in a course titled Snow Dynamics and Accumulation. It asks student groups to describe snow pits and the variability in those snow pits in space. It can be used to understand the temporal variation of snow stratigraphy if it is repeated through a snow season.

PLEASE do not be dissuaded from this exercise because it is written for a specific location. The ideas can be translated anywhere there is snow and the snow does not have to be exceptionally deep.

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Undergraduate required upper division, capstone, research course in the Snow Science Option in Earth Sciences at Montana State University.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Snow observation, snow description, snow measurement. This exercise is normally preceded by at least two hours of lecture on how to observe, measure and describe snow and one hour discussion of equipment.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a stand alone exercise. It is the first exercise. As described earlier it is, in one way or another repeated numerous times during the semester (each time with a different objective and different tests. In a sense it is the beginning of a sequence that culminates in a field project, but this is the first exercise.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Observation of snow
  • Description of snow
  • Work with a snow cover sheet
  • Interpret data
Material below is taken from the exercise.
  • Observe, describe and record snow stratigraphy, density, hardness, temperatures, temperature gradients and crystals within a snow pit, and study the effects of snow metamorphism.
  • Calibrate your finger hardness force. Push on your cheek toward your teeth with your finger (no pain) or push on the tip of your nose (no pain). (North American Standard is 10-15 N force; International Standard is 50 N force.)
  • Determine how consistent the stratigraphy is from location to location. Are there trends from pit to pit at the site?

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Collect data
  • Analyze data
  • Test hypothesis presented to the students

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Write about the results in a scientific format
  • Work in groups

Description of the activity/assignment

The student understands that snow leads to avalanches, but is often very inexperienced in the observation of the snow pack. This exercise provides the opportunity to learn about snow stratigraphy, observation, and measurement from a detailed observational perspective. The students work in small groups in 3-6 pits (depends on the class size). By working on a transect from the trees out into the opening, they discover (usually) that the snow depth is different and that the descriptions in the pits differ as one proceeds out from the trees into the opening. (Different stratigraphic units, different thickness, different temperature, different density, different crystals.)

Determining whether students have met the goals

A grading rubric (Excel 17kB May17 10) is used for assessment.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs