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Research project investigates the direction of growth of snow crystals

Physicist Lars Mewes from the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) is investigating the direction in which snow crystals grow on the Aletsch Glacier. As an expert, he is accompanying a project of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and ETH Zurich.

Mewes works at more than 3,400 meters above sea level in the high alpine research station on the Jungfraujoch. From there, the snow researcher sets off daily on skis to the Jungfraufirn, 200 meters below, to take measurements and snow samples for the cold laboratory in Davos, as the SLF announced on Thursday.

Researchers at ETH Zurich have installed a ground-based radar on the Jungfraujoch. They use it to measure the amount of fresh snow, the structure of the firn and that of the entire glacier. Mewes digs snow profiles on the glacier and analyzes them. "With our SnowImager, a device with which we determine the structure of the snow cover, we obtain a very fine resolution in the millimetre range," the physicist noted.

The ETH Zurich researchers then compare their results with the results of their radar images. This allows them to see how well their method is already working - and where they may need to make improvements.

Work on the rope

Mewes' work is not without danger. On the glacier, the researchers secure each other with a rope in case a crevasse opens up. The thin air is noticeable on the way back to the station when they have to climb several hundred meters in altitude. The work ends at the end of the week.

At the end of March, the DLR aircraft will circle over the Jungfraujoch and Aletsch Glacier - weather permitting. SLF researchers will then be on site again, among other things to investigate the anisotropy of snow crystals in fresh snow. Properties and processes that have a direction and are not the same in all directions are called anisotropic.

The SLF will then make a reference measurement of the direction in which the ice crystals are oriented. This will then be used by the DLR researchers. This is because they measure the snow cover with radar from an airplane. So far, they have only compared theoretical values from the scientific literature with their data. According to a press release, the SLF's work should contribute to results that are closer to reality.


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