Montana's Landscape Provides a Home for Dino Hunters and Snow Scientists Alike
October 6, 2011 -- By Michael Becker
Avalanche control at Bridger Bowl
Snow science class conducted at Lone Mountain.
Photo by Stephen Hunts
Students working at the Egg Mountain dig site.
Photo by Kelly Gorham
Sweeping vistas at the Egg Mountain dig site.
Photo by Kelly Gorham
Montana 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 snow-capped 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, a professor in the earth sciences department 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,” Hendrikx said.
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 Hendrikx said 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 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.
“Montana is very rich in dinosaurs and dinosaur-bearing rocks,” said Varricchio, who is in his ninth year as a professor at MSU. His research focuses on dinosaur reproduction and the origin of reproduction in the birds we see today.
Paleontology, for him, was a way to combine his interest in animals and their biology with a sense of traveling back in time.
“With paleontology, you almost travel to another world since it’s 75 or 100 millions years ago,” he said. “There’s that kind of excitement of discovery that awaits in the badlands of Montana.”
That thrill of exploration and discovery appeals to everyone in the paleontology program, Varricchio said. The students, many of whom come from out of state, bring that excitement with them into the program, and it becomes contagious, he said.
Nothing stokes that excitement quite so much as getting to go and actually dig up dinosaurs. Opportunities for such field research abound, said senior Daniel Barta, 22.
“Performing undergraduate research in paleontology at MSU is not only a very accessible goal, it is encouraged,” the Helena native said, stressing the program’s foundations in geology, which he said make MSU’s paleontology program unique.
For senior Eric Metz, 23 of Hanford, Calif., MSU was always the clear choice for paleontology.
“I came to MSU because when I watched documentaries on dinosaurs, I noticed most took place somewhere in Montana, and Jack Horner and Dave Varricchio were being interviewed for them,” Metz said. “I thought MSU would be a prime place to study paleontology if I wanted to pursue it as a career.
It doesn’t hurt that MSU has a world-class paleontology facility in the Museum of the Rockies, Varricchio said. The museum provides students and faculty with the infrastructure they need to conduct serious lab work and research. When taken together with the state’s rich dino geology, it produces a combination Varricchio called “really exceptional.”
Of course, all the facilities in the state wouldn’t be worth anything without the people of Montana, Metz said. They seem to understand the importance of the fossils buried under their land and are willing to let bunches of dinosaur hunters camp out for the summer.
“The Museum of the Rockies and MSU make going out and getting the fossils feasible, but the farmers and ranchers allowing us to camp on their land make it possible,” he said.