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Montana’s landscape provides a home for dino hunters and snow scientists alike

M

ontana is about 630 miles across and 250 miles north to south. That’s more than 147,000 square miles of diverse landscape, from arid plains in the east to snowcapped mountains in the west.

It’s a vast and varied place that gives two of Montana State University’s signature earth science programs, paleontology and snow science, plenty of room to run. The mountains­— or rather the snow on them—were a particular draw for Jordy Hendrikx, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth Sciences who joined the faculty this year. Hendrikx is part of the snow science program, a unique course of study that uses geography, math, statistics, chemistry and physics to give students the broad foundation they need to work in a variety of snow-related jobs, from avalanche forecasting to snow-melt hydrology. Hendrikx, who came to MSU from New Zealand, studies snow as both a hazard and a resource. It’s a hazard for the recreationists who face avalanche conditions in the mountains. It’s a resource for the millions of people across the West who depend on the water that comes from seasonal snowmelt. And Montana, he said, is just the place to study snow. “From a research perspective, you’ve got a perfect natural laboratory on your doorstep.” 12

By Michael Becker

That natural laboratory is a big attraction for the students enrolled in the snow science option, which culminates in a senior capstone course on snow dynamics and accumulation. The class takes students out to the mountains each week during the semester to put what they have learned about snow science into action. The program prepares students for careers in the cold, and according to Hendrikx, MSU has had good luck putting graduates into snow science and engineering jobs across Montana and the rest of the West. “Snow jobs are hard to get,” he said. “They’re in high demand, but I think we’ve done very well in the wider community.” Whereas the snow science program uses the state’s cold, wet resources to teach, the paleontology program prefers the arid, dusty regions of the state. Well, arid and dusty now. Between 75 million and 100 million years ago, Montana was a warm, wet coastal plain on the shore of a great inland sea, explained paleontology associate professor David Varricchio. That sea deposited great layers of sediment across much of the state, burying dinosaur remains under conditions that turned out to be very good for the formation of fossils.

Confluence College of Letters and Science 2011-2012

Confluence 2011-2012  

The College of Letters and Science annual magazine. This issue is titled "Learning in the Last Best Place."

Confluence 2011-2012  

The College of Letters and Science annual magazine. This issue is titled "Learning in the Last Best Place."