How to Measure Snow
posted by Sanni Priha on 3 April 2023

The work in process is a film trilogy titled Farewell to Snow. The three short films investigate snow and its materiality through the perspective of a human being, other animals, and the snow itself. In the residency period, two weeks in mid March, in Kilpisjärvi I am making background research for the third film of the trilogy. The film focuses on the snow metamorphoses, the changes on the snow cover and the scientific work and data involved in measuring snow.

Background research and partial filming for the first two films of the trilogy have been done during the past winters in other artist residencies in northern regions of Finland. First in Old Mine Residency in Outokumpu (2021), then in Mustarinda Residency (2022). In the first two residencies, we worked together with my colleague, sound designer Jarkko Kela. The work with snow relies on experimentation that the residency periods have allowed us. Together, during the residencies, we have been able to test ideas by filming and recording and translate working ideas straight away into a film script. However, this time, Jarkko had to cancel his residency in the last minute as we were not able to secure financing for his work during residency period in Kilpisjärvi.

My working plan at Kilpisjärvi is initially based on digging snow pits and experimenting on different ways of filming the layers in the snow cover. I'm working on the snow pit as it was taught by geophysicist and snow researcher Sirpa Rasmus during a Boreal Winter Ecology field course organized by University of Jyväskylä. In her lecture Sirpa taught how the snow pit measures are done and what the measuring usually consists of.  She also suggested me, that to photograph the layers of the snow cover, I would dig another snow pit on the other side of the examined snow wall.

With daylight piercing through 20-centimeter-thick wall of snow, a whole new view into snow cover opens.The task is to develop techniques of cinematography in which the materiality of snow in different layers will be haptically perceptible. A real reason for joy is found from the bottom of the snow pit as I investigate the details and differences of individual snow crystals. In the bottom layers of snow cover the size of the snow crystals grow and their shapes begin to mold into peculiar characters - at least in the eyes of a storyteller.

An unexpected turn at work takes place when residency mentor Leena Valkeapää introduces me to Julia Hoffman from a nearby village of IItto. Julia makes monthly measurements of the snow depth and density in the snow cover for Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE). I am lucky to be able to join Julia on her skiing route along the line of altogether 44 measurement points. The physically demanding route includes measurement points in the fjeld, below and above the tree line as well as in marshland area. The snow depth is measured by pushing a stick through the snow cover. The density measurement begins by digging a pit to the ground.  A tin cylinder with an open bottom is then pushed straight through the snow cover and down to the ground. The bottom of the cylinder is closed with a shovel, the cylinder is lifted, cleaned of outside snow, and weighed. The measurements are marked straight away in a green diary that also includes instructions for the line measurer.

As a side note, it must be said that skiing in the fell is absolutely wonderful. There’s no words nor pictures for that.

At the station’s library I find a printed publication of Geophysica from 2001. There is an article on Geophysics of Snow and Ice in Finland during the 1900s. My attention is drawn to a photograph by Esko Kuusisto. In the picture Mr. Oiva Urjankangas is weighing a snow sample in the 1970s with the same Korhonen-Melander devise as Julia was using for her measurements. There is beauty in the continuum in the measuring line. The person making the observations can never really know what their work will be used in the future. In a very concrete way, they will serve the world of science in the years and centuries to come.

My residency period ends here, but the work on snow measurements at Kilpisjärvi will continue at the beginning of the next snow season.