In the West, seasonal snow supplies up to 80 percent of available water each year, and about a billion people across the globe depend on it for their water supply. That includes Southern Idahoans, who live in a highly arid region that relies on an extensive canal system and precipitation that falls mostly during the winter.
Estimating spring runoff from the mountain snowpack is critical for predicting available hydroelectric power and flood forecasting, and for water-resource management. Obtaining those estimates can be challenging, however, because snow is inherently variable. It can be dry and powdery, wet and dense, or somewhere in between. It also melts and refreezes, and the amount of energy the snowpack absorbs from the sun can vary greatly.
So snow depth alone cannot accurately predict snowmelt.
Adding to the challenge are how the snowpack is layered and the angle of the slope. Both factors influence the possibility of an avalanche that could threaten lives, block roads, damage property and disrupt the power supply.
So how do scientists determine snowpack water storage and track stability?
For many years, scientists have traveled on skis and snowshoes to collect cores and weigh them to determine water content. Today they use automated weather stations that measure the weight of the snowpack every hour. Now they are starting to use state-of-the-art geophysical, remote sensing, modeling and engineering tools.
Across Idaho, snow research is an interdisciplinary endeavor, including geophysicists, geochemists, hydrologists, electrical engineering, computer scientists and education faculty.
Boise State geoscientists Lejo Flores and Hans-Peter Marshall are investigating the use of remote sensing to better predict annual runoff through a NASA-funded grant. Flores is using available remote-sensing assets to identify variables such as surface and groundwater, root-zone soil moisture and how much groundwater evaporates. This project combines the work Flores’ group is doing in atmospheric and land-surface modeling with the Marshall team’s extensive ground-based and airborne radar and snow observations.
Marshall also is working on a separate NASA grant with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Harris Corp., the University of Michigan, and the National Snow and Ice Data Center at University of Colorado to develop a remote-sensing approach to mapping snow. The new package combines multiple instruments and frequencies, and was flown for the first time in February. Marshall led a team of 18 scientists, including six BSU students, who performed snowpack observations while the aircraft flew overhead.
New and better information is important because even though we have 30 years of data at a number of sites on, say, Boise River flow and snow conditions, that data is quickly becoming obsolete as we deal with changing climate conditions.
The severe drought in California, coupled with an anticipated El Niño year across the West, is heightening the public’s interest in snowpack. Meteorologists expect a small increase in precipitation, but warmer temperatures mean much of it could come as rain. Determining how much water is available in the snowpack, and where it will likely flow, is becoming more critical.
That interest is spurring an increase in snow-related careers, leading in turn to a push to interest budding scientists at an earlier age.
Boise State engineer Sin Ming Loo is working with Marshall and the director of the National SnowSchool, Kerry McClay, a recent Boise State Ph.D. graduate, to expand the program to target middle school and high school students. SnowSchool’s flagship site is Bogus Basin, and it has more than 40 other sites across the U.S. This project is expanding the program by engaging students with low-cost snow and weather stations, and new curriculum.
Other key local collaborators in snow research include:
▪ Idaho Power, which is funding cloud-seeding research by BSU geoscientist Shawn Benner and an atmospheric modeling program by Flores.
▪ The Idaho Transportation Department, which recently funded Marshall’s group to monitor and model avalanche danger on Idaho 21’s “avalanche alley” between Lowman and Stanley.
▪ The NSF-funded interdisciplinary snow research involving geophysics, geochemistry and hydrology with Matt Kohn, Sam Evans, Marshall, Flores, Jim McNamara and John Bradford at BSU’s Bogus Basin research site.
▪ The Northwest Watershed Research Center at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service Sawtooth Avalanche Center.
Advancing research in this area is crucial to safeguarding the economic health of the region, as well as the personal well-being of its residents. Researchers are committed to being part of those efforts.
Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. His column looks at the state of scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.