Citizen-Scientists Mix Research, Recreation

Sentinel Staff Writer
    It was 6:30 a.m. Saturday when four skiers, one snowboarder, two dogs, and one reporter on snowshoes convened at the end of Pherson Street for a hike up to Candyland, a skiable glade off Gavan ridge.
    They were in a hurry. Aaron Prussian, a fisheries biologist and newly-minted assistant basketball coach, had a 1 p.m. skills clinic to attend with the Baranof Ballers fifth- and sixth-grade team. His wife, Katherine, a U.S. Forest Service hydrologist, also had a midday basketball commitment: making sure the players from the Juneau-Douglas High School team staying with the Prussians over the weekend were properly fed before their afternoon game against Sitka.
    Still, they checked that every human member had a beacon, probe, and shovel — essential avalanche safety gear — and that some were carrying first aid kits.
    As final pack adjustments and layering decisions were made, certain group members lamented their lack of caffeination. Others fantasized about a heated ridgetop yurt. Then everyone hit the trail.  
    For Aaron and Lee House, the day’s goal was not just to make turns through powder. They are involved in a citizen science project called Community Snow Observations (CSO).

CITIZEN MONITORS – LEFT: Katherine Prussian leads a group up Gavan Hill early Saturday morning. (Photo by James Poulson) RIGHT: Aaron Prussian holds a measuring probe on top of the mountain later in the morning.  Prussian is a member of a citizen science project called Community Snow Observations, which is funded by NASA.  (Photo by Lee House)

    “It’s a NASA-funded project that involves a number of scientists from University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Oregon, and some folks, I think, from the University of Washington,” Aaron said. “They’ve developed models that predict snow amounts throughout the West and Alaska, and they’ve used these remote sensing techniques, either through satellite or aircraft, to predict how much snow they think is there. But they have no real ground truthing — so that’s what we do.”
    The “we” in this case refers to winter recreationists like Aaron and House. Their part in the citizen science project is to measure snow depth with their avalanche probes and upload the data with a smart phone app that automatically records their location and elevation for submission to CSO.
    Though CSO casts these data collectors as “citizen scientists,” Aaron, a fisheries biologist, is an actual scientist who moonlights as a citizen scientist on his days off. House, a self-described “all-around creative,” fits the citizen scientist mold more classically.
     Aaron said understanding the snowpack will help the climate scientists at CSO better understand drought — which, he said, is what first got him measuring three years ago.
    “My interest was ‘hey, I’ve seen this before.’ I’ve seen really low snow conditions in the winter reflected in the summer and I thought, ‘this is right up my alley,’ ” he said.
    Climate scientists say last summer was the hottest on record in Alaska. House said he heard two unexpected sounds that summer: the “crinkling” underfoot of dried vegetation in a rain-forested glacial valley north of Juneau, and the “whirring” of a diesel generator near the normally hydro-powered town of Petersburg.
    After that summer, House resolved to record snow depth measurements for CSO every time he goes snowboarding.
    “I wanted there to be a tangible output from my recreation,” House said, “because this recreation, it’s technically a thing of privilege: you have the time, energy, and ability to go out and do these things.”
    By the time the group arrived at Candyland Saturday morning, the top of Harbor Mountain was turning gold from the rising sun. As the boarders and skiers peeled off their climbing skins, Aaron plunged his avalanche probe into the snow.
    “We tend to follow protocol, which is to get the points of a triangle, just to give yourself an average of where you’re standing,” he said, “Right now, we’re between 85 and 100 centimeters.”
    Asked how that depth compares to past Januarys at Candyland, Aaron said, “I’ve seen a lot more!”
    “And we’ve seen a lot less!” chimed in Katherine, who, waiting down-slope from Aaron, was ready to make her run.
    She disappeared through the powder into the trees.
    Then Aaron determined his final average measurement (90 cm), repacked his probe, and followed Katherine, House and the other two skiers down Candyland.
    Today, the full-time scientist, part-time citizen scientist would have time for just one run – he had a basketball skills clinic to get to.

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At a Glance

(updated 9-12-2023)

By Sentinel Staff

The state Department of Health and Social Services has posted the following update on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alaska as of 8:57 a.m. Tuesday, September 12.

New cases as of Tuesday: 278

Total cases (cumulative) statewide – 301,513

Total (cumulative) deaths – 1,485

Case Rate per 100,000 – 38.14

To visit the Alaska DHSS Corona Response dashboard website click here.

COVID in Sitka

The Sitka community level is now "Low.'' Case statistics are as of Tuesday.

Case Rate/100,000 – 152.50

Cases in last 7 days – 13

Cumulative Sitka cases – 3,575

Deceased (cumulative) – 10

The local case data are from Alaska DHSS.






September 2003

After the season-opening Ketchikan High School swim meet last week, Sitka High swimmer Matt Way is ranked first in the state in the100-meter breaststroke, while Carrington Gorman is ranked second in the 50-meter freestyle.



September 1973

From Around Town: Sitka Historical Society met Sunday at the Centennial Building with the people who had hosted the Historical Room during tour ship visits here. The ladies of the society served a nice Russian Tea from their samovar, and passed around Russian tea cakes.