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NASA, Scientists Want Help Measuring the Snow

A team of Northwest scientists and NASA are asking snowshoers, snowmobilers, and skiers in Washington and Oregon to measure snow depth in the backcountry.

December 5, 2017

Cities, farmers, and conservationists all need to know how much water is in each winter’s snowpack.

But there aren’t many weather stations that measure the snowpack, and “they tend to be at lower elevations,” says David Hill, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Oregon State University.

A snow-machine rider takes a snowpack reading as part of Community Snow Observations, a NASA-sponsored citizen science project. Oregon State UniversityThat’s why a team of Northwest scientists and NASA are looking for help. They’re asking snowshoers, snowmobilers, and skiers in Washington and Oregon to measure snow depth in the backcountry.

“The great thing about the recreational community in Washington and Oregon is that they travel all over the place,” Hill says.

He and his team launched their project, Community Snow Observations, to get snow depth measurements from all over the Pacific Northwest all winter long.

“This measurement can be made with an avalanche probe, which is really just looks very much like a tent pole,” Hill explains. “It’s collapsible. It can extend up to four or five meters, and it’s got markings on it like a ruler.”

Hill and his team have published tutorials about how to get good measurements  — by measuring away from trees and sharp ridges, for example.

Recreationists can then upload their data from their smartphones.

Willemijn Appels is a hydrologist at Lethbridge College in Alberta. She led a similar project in Saskatoon. She says a lot of factors other than just depth affect how much water is in the snowpack, but “getting a depth is a first start. Then you can make an educated guess of how much water is in there.”

The researchers will use the data to build a better model of the Pacific Northwest’s snowpack, and having better snowpack models will help scientists map changes as climate change continues.

The recreationists who contribute data will benefit too, Appels says: “When you look at the map or the graph and you know you measured that point, that’s very satisfying.”



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NRCS Hydrologist Julie Koeberle does a snow survey on Mount Hood, finding just over 11 feet of snow here.

Courtesy of Natural Resource Conservation Service

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