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Researchers Will Soon Predict the Snowpack Before the Snow Even Falls

NOAA researchers have built a tool that can predict the snowpack eight months ahead of time, before the snow even falls.

January 22, 2018

Farmers, cities, and conservationists rely on melting snow to water their crops, feed their aquifers, and fill streams and rivers for fish. But, usually, no one has any idea how much snowpack--and, thus, snowmelt--to expect until it’s too late.

“It’s important for farmers to understand what can they plant, and when should they plant?” NOAA scientist Sarah Kapnick explained when I caught her on the phone just before the government shutdown went into effect for her agency. “It also matters for people that are really interested in fisheries.”

Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of Oregon’s water consumption. But snowpack and glaciers have been diminishing and drought declarations are becoming routine. Credit: Justin Much/Statesman Journal

That’s why Kapnick led a team of researchers to build a tool that can predict the snowpack eight months ahead of time, before the snow even falls. The researchers use conditions in July to predict how much snow will have accumulated in the mountains by the following March. They use observations of ocean temperatures and weather patterns--for example, whether or not it’s an El Niño year--and plug those initial conditions into three global climate models to generate a prediction for what the snowpack will look like eight months out.

Kapnick says the tool can make predictions for individual mountain ranges so each region knows what to expect.

The research was published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but Kapnick and her team want to further refine their tool before making it available to the public.

At the moment, Washington’s snowpack is pretty close to normal, but Oregon’s snowpack is very low.


A snow-machine rider takes a snowpack reading as part of Community Snow Observations, a NASA-sponsored citizen science project.

Oregon State University