Montana State University

MSU avalanche expert in permanent exhibit in Chicago

August 18, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


MSU snow scientist Ed Adams appears in a big-screen video that welcomes visitors to the avalanche portion of a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The orange avalanche disk below the screen lets visitors set a speed and watch "snow" flow down a virtual mountainside. (Museum of Science and Industry photo).   High-Res Available

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Editor's note: MSU's SubZero Science and Engineering Research Facility and the researchers who use it have garnered extensive national attention in recent years. Read "Popular Science: MSU has one of nation's most amazing college labs" to learn why MSU's SubZero Science and Engineering Research Facility is considered one of 15 "mind-blowing college labs" in the country.

For more about MSU's SubZero Science and Engineering Research Facility, visit:

"At MSU snow, ice and cold are hot science"
Fall 2008 issue of Mountains and Minds
"Solving Avalanches' Mysteries"
New York Times, Jan. 20, 2009
"What lies beneath; Miles below Antarctica's icy surface, scientists are finding abundant life in liquid lakes and rivers"
Washington Post, March 23, 2010


BOZEMAN -- A Montana State University snow scientist who is nationally and internationally known for studying avalanches is now part of a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Ed Adams appears larger than life in a big-screen video that welcomes visitors to the avalanche portion of the Science Storms exhibit. Showing that researchers are regular people with fun jobs, he shares what he does, the questions he asks and what excites him about his research.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, a miniature Adams appears in an interactive game that teaches visitors about avalanches. Players see Adams in his parka and wool hat and listen to him introduce the game. Then they trigger a cartoon avalanche behind him, select conditions that might contribute to avalanches and listen to Adams' recorded comments about their choices.

"The entire exhibit is outstanding," Adams said recently after seeing it for himself.

Adams has been featured in the New York Times, various National Geographic publications and People magazine. He has appeared on the national news, Discovery Channel, the History Channel and Discovery Channel Canada. But the Chicago exhibit is definitely a career highlight, Adams said. The Museum of Science and Industry has approximately 1.5 million visitors a year, with 300,000 of them school children on registered tours.

Adams is known for the research he conducted from inside a shed in the Bridger Mountains and inside the SubZero Science and Engineering Research Facility on the MSU campus. During the winter and spring, when conditions were right for avalanches, Adams and his team of students headed high into the Bridgers where they set off small explosions and monitored the resulting avalanches from inside a building they bolted to a boulder.

Throughout the year, Adams and his team of graduate and undergraduate students work inside the SubZero Science and Engineering Research Facility in Cobleigh Hall. Directed by Adams and Antarctic researcher John Priscu, the facility that opened in 2008 is a suite of labs where students and researchers from all over the world and across many scientific disciplines can study the effects of extreme cold. The lab allows them to duplicate the conditions they'd find in Antarctica (where Adams has worked for five field seasons), the Arctic, Greenland, Montana or any other frigid location they want.

Olivia Castellini, senior exhibit developer at the Museum of Science and Industry, said museum staff first saw Adams when he appeared on the PBS show NOVA several years ago. They started keeping tabs on him, and when they began developing the concept for the Science Storms exhibit, he was one of the first researchers they contacted. As they developed pieces for the avalanche exhibit, they ran them by Adams.

"We rely on partnerships with people like Ed to make sure we are choosing interesting science and accurate information," Castellini said. She added that, "He ended up being an incredible resource for us."

Adams made the transition from consultant to exhibit over time, Castellini said. As museum staff members worked with Adams, they were struck by how much he loves what he does and realized that he should become part of the exhibit. They eventually asked him, and he agreed.

"He's a very laid-back guy," Castellini said. "He was very cool about participating."

Castellini and a film crew came to MSU last summer when Bozeman was "blazing hot." Part of the filming occurred in the SubZero Science and Engineering Research Facility, which lived up to its name.

"We were inside, totally freezing," Castellini said.

Filming also occurred in a Roberts Hall classroom that had no air conditioning and needed extra lighting. Because Adams had to look like a snow scientist for the interactive game, he wore winter clothes while recording his lines in front of hot lights and a green screen. The screen allowed film makers to superimpose avalanche footage later.

"Ed and his whole research team were wonderful about working with us and making sure we understood the science," Castellini said. "Those guys spent hours with us going through each line of the interactive game to make sure the science was right."

The Science Storms exhibit opened March 18, taking up two floors and an entire wing of the main museum building. Covering more than 26,000 square feet, the exhibit focuses on the science behind some of nature's most powerful phenomena. Besides "Avalanches and Motion," Science Storms features Tornados and Vortices, Tsunamis and Waves, Sunlight and Rainbows, Fire and Combustion, Atoms and Matter; and Lightning, Charge and Magnetism.

Visitors have the opportunity to participate in more than 50 experiments and activities, including manipulating a 40-foot tornado, setting off a 30-foot tsunami and creating a soaring rainbow. In the avalanche area, they start to understand how Adams felt when he triggered experimental avalanches in the Bridger Mountains. They turn a 20-foot steel avalanche disk, set a speed and watch "snow" flow down a virtual mountainside in varying patterns. Besides learning about the flow of granules (in this case, white glass beads and tan sand), they see how snow crystals teach Adams about snow pack. They learn how micro-structures are a key component in forecasting avalanches.

"It is a pretty impressive exhibit," Adams said.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu