Student voices

NASA SnowEx: Science below zero

By Bareera Mirza
Fall/Winter 2023

Editor’s note: Bareera Mirza is a geography Ph.D. student studying with Mark Raleigh. This piece was adapted from her entry in the blog CEOAS Chronicles, which shares the experiences of CEOAS graduate students. Read more student entries.

Bareera Mirza standing in a snowy forest

How does a Pakistani Muslim woman who lived all of her life near the coast end up kneeling in the Alaskan snow collecting data?

I developed my love for snow and glaciers the very first time I saw them, visiting Skardu, a city in the Himalayas of Pakistan, in April2018. After that initial exposure,I returned multiple times to gain a deeper understanding of the local community. It was a life-changing experience to talk to local people, learning about their struggles living near the mountains and their dependency on a resource that was changing with the changing climate. The combination of these visits,exposure gained in classes, and lessons learned from my professors inspired my current trajectory.

In October 2022, as a new graduate student at CEOAS, I participated in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration SnowEx 2023 Tundra and Boreal Forest campaign in Fairbanks, Alaska. SnowEx is a multi-year field campaign to observe snow and come up with the best remote sensing technologies to accurately predict snow throughout the season in various environments.

NASA SnowEx was nothing less than a dream come true. However, I could feel the nervousness among my family and loved ones for my safety, especially given that it is unusual for Pakistani women to do such fieldwork in extreme weather and in unfamiliar territory. I was nervous, too. I didn’t even know the types of gear I would need — what on Earth is a gaiter? I am thankful to my advisor, Mark Raleigh, and the team at NASA Goddard, who helped me with field trip preparation and made the process manageable.

Science talk

My collaborative team, consisting of 40 scientists from NASA and other institutions, reached Fairbanks to observe five different test sites. I was assigned a boreal forest site, Bonanza Creek, in one of the largest forested biomes on Earth, covering 17 million square kilometers and accounting for approximately one-third of Earth’s total forest area.

I spent a couple of days at Farmer’s Loop, a site in a nearby town that serves as a good testbed to compare snow measurements in wetlands, ponds and swamp forest environments. We took a range of measurements (snow water equivalent, snow depth, temperature, stratigraphy and soil samples) by digging snow pits in a 5 by 5 meter plot.


Fun with science!

The trip was mostly for snow science, but science is fun, isn’t it? The sampling site was breathtakingly beautiful, deep in the forest. Walking in unknown terrain was an adventure. We were unaware of what was beneath the snow cover — we could have been walking on a lake, pond, or a tall tussock (which were present literally every 10 meters or less). Tree branches hit our faces as we migrated through a dense forest, wearing snow gear and holding our measurement tools. But, none of it felt overwhelming because the snow is so beautiful, and whenever I felt tired, I just looked around to admire the peaceful scenery. I saw moose for the first time and ate my cold salad sandwich in the forest.

On the last day, we went to see the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility, a unique natural lab dedicated to studying permafrost. This visit was like time travel, as some of the features we saw were 40,000 years old. Finally, talking to people about the Himalayas and my experience as the first Pakistani woman to work in SnowEx campaigns was spectacular. Overall, I loved this 12-day trip where I worked as a snow scientist. I made many connections, learned a lot and experienced a whole different life. I plan to continue pursuing snow science and exploring new frontiers.

There are few women of color who are aware of snow science efforts, so with my experience and knowledge, I would love to inspire more women to be part of this community.

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