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The Working Life: Scientist Mike Colee at Peak of His Career Studying Snow Site

He balances his time working as a programmer, managing the IT needs of research groups and doing fieldwork

Scientist Mike Colee developed an early interest in environmental studies and geography and now works with the Earth Research Institute at UCSB.
Scientist Mike Colee developed an early interest in environmental studies and geography and now works with the Earth Research Institute at UCSB.  (Jenn Kennedy photo / www.kennedypix.com)

Water is a basic need, but in the Western United States, we are dependent on snowfall to replenish our supply. Scientist Mike Colee manages a snow study site that helps predict when, where and how much water will be available, among other useful data.

Raised in Redondo Beach, Colee grew up skateboarding and cycling. He chose UCSB with plans to pursue physics. Along the way, he took environmental studies and basic geography classes. Something clicked for Colee, who then decided to double major in environmental studies and geography.

Jeff Dozier, a renowned snow hydrologist, mentored Colee during his undergraduate years through internships studying methods for predicting snow covered area and introduced him to his Alpine snow science course — a class Colee would later help teach.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, Colee began a master’s program in Boulder, Colo., but the ever critical funding waned and he decided to follow another path. He bought a pickup truck and moved in. For the next several years he worked as an outdoor guide leading courses for Outward Bound in Oregon and Utah and guiding rock climbing, skiing, mountain bike and raft trips in California and Montana.

Colee later returned to Santa Barbara and was tapped by UCSB faculty to help with information technology in the Geography Department, doing geographical information systems work for the California Gap Analysis Project led by Frank Davis, a professor specializing in biogeography and resource management. This segued into a spatial ecology fellowship, awarded during his pursuit of a master’s degree in geography, with Dozier as his adviser. Colee was also the snow specialist on a sea ice cruise to Antarctica during this period.

In the decade after earning his degree, Colee balanced his time working as a science programmer, managing the IT needs for several UCSB research groups and doing fieldwork at a snow study site in Mammoth. The site, run jointly with the Earth Research Institute at UCSB and the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab, has many uses. Colee and his team have set up instruments to monitor the energy balance of the area, including incoming and outgoing radiation in multiple wavelengths (energy from the sun), air temperature and relative humidity, wind speed and direction, snow melt, snow temperature and snow depth, and soil temperature and wetness.

Colee visits the site monthly during the snow season and spends two weeks every fall repairing and recalibrating instruments for accuracy.

“Snow provides 90 percent of fresh water in the Western U.S., so our ability to predict its volume and timing of melt is crucial to water resource managers,” he said. “It significantly impacts agriculture, hydroelectric power and municipal water supplies.”

Also, because there is limited instrumentation on the east side of the Sierras, this data site, built in the 1980s, has found numerous other interested parties. The U.S. Geological Survey uses it to monitor earthquake activity, and meteorological data is used for weather and climate change monitoring. Researchers from the Dry Regions Institute in Reno are measuring black carbon and airborne particulates in the snow and air at the site, which are indicators of pollution.

“The IT portion of my job demands more time but is also more predictable since the science work is totally dependent on grants or ‘soft funding,’” Colee said. “I still work with scientists, and my background enables me to better understand and provide for their needs, especially valuable in these difficult fiscal times.”

Noozhawk contributing writer Jenn Kennedy can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to see more of her work. Follow her on Twitter: @jennkennedy.

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