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How You Can Help Scientists Collect Better Information About Colorado’s Snowpack

The Community Snow Observations project is recruiting adventurers to measure the depth of powder in remote areas. The initiative could provide more accurate information about spring runoff and help us better understand climate change.

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Even though we have a whole bunch of sophisticated weather-measuring technology, Colorado’s snowpack remains somewhat of a mystery. Currently, some of the best information scientists have about snowpack in the Colorado backcountry comes from SNOTEL sites—basically, automated weather stations that attempt to measure the depth of fallen flakes using an electronic sensor. That intelligence, though, isn’t always the most accurate and many of the stations are located in relatively easy-to-reach locations, meaning they gather almost no data about what is happening in the most complex, mountainous areas. 

“That’s where most of the snow is,” says David Hill, a principal investigator for Community Snow Observations. “That’s where the most interesting information is, and we’re not measuring it.” 

Community Snow Observations wants to fix that lack of data. In order to do so, the organization has created a worldwide network for backcountry skiers, snowshoers, snowmobilers, and other adventurers already heading into remote locales to report more accurate on-the-ground details about how much snow has piled up. The citizen-driven research project could reshape our understanding of snowfall in the mountains. It will also hopefully provide more accurate forecasts about spring runoff—including water for drinking and farming—as well as better information about what boating, fishing, and even the wildfire seasons in the future could look like. 

The idea for the Community Snow Observations project came in 2014. At the time, Gabriel Wolken, manager of the Climate and Cryosphere Hazards Program at the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, was studying how new snow recharged glaciers in Alaska. In order to do so, he recruited volunteers from a local avalanche center to ski out to measure it. That quadrupled the amount of data collected in a day. He and a team of snow scientists realized a similar human-powered effort could be applied to snowpack measurements in other parts of the world and they put together a funding proposal for NASA’s Earth Science Division, which routinely searches for citizen science projects.

The project ultimately received that funding, and shortly thereafter a pair of scientists at the University of Washington joined the effort, giving it a foothold in the lower 48. To help bring in new citizen contributors, Community Snow Observations starting giving presentations at events for backcountry organizations across the country, such as Silverton Avalanche School here in Colorado. The organization has also worked to recruit “ambassadors,” who talk up the project in their community. Currently, Community Snow Observations has a network of thousands of people submitting data from all over the world.   

If you are one of the many of Coloradans adventuring in the backcountry, you could be one of those citizen scientists. During your treks, you probably take a few moments to pause for a sip of water or to snap a photo. The Community Snow Observations project is hoping you might also use that time to measure some snow. That can be accomplished using a probe—a long stick that is used by those heading out into avalanche terrain to gauge snow depth—or even a ruler for shallower snowpack. You can then upload the location and the height of the flakes that have piled up (preferably in centimeters) to the Mountain Hub app, which was originally created to crowdsource backcountry conditions, but was recently gifted by its previous owner, Mammut Sports Group, to Community Snow Observations. 

“I can do this action that I was already doing,” says Aidan Goldie, a Carbondale resident and ambassador for the Community Snow Observations project, “but have it contribute to something grander and more meaningful, which adds a nice layer.”

The data also helps NASA better interpret satellite images tracking global snowfall and temperature patterns. “In order to actually figure out what you’re looking at,” says Gerald Guala, a scientist with the Earth Science Division at NASA, “you need to take samples from the ground so you can tell this reading in this pixel means the ground is this high … or the snow is this deep.”

So far, scientists have found that even intermittent reports make a big difference. That means in order to contribute you don’t need to go to the same place in the mountains every day, or even every week. Also, for those concerned about pinpointing a secret powder stash, there’s a function on the app that allows you to submit reports privately, so only the scientists see it.

Ultimately, though, adding actual measurements to computer models can dramatically shift their projections. “It really speaks to the power of using the crowd and how they can really contribute to advancing the science and improving the area they live in,” says Wolken. 

The details create a picture of our changing climate, but could also help fine-tune local avalanche forecasts. The research matters even far downstream, where snowmelt turns to water flowing out of kitchen faucets. For adventurers who likely use the data available about weather forecasts, stream flow, and avalanche hazards to plan their outings, it’s even a chance to give back a little, Hill says.

Goldie, who teaches high school in Basalt, also sees the app as a gateway for his students to engage with their world through science and start making bigger connections between issues like last year’s low snowpack and the summer’s intense wildfires. His students delighted in digging into snow and discovering more than a uniform blanket.

“I saw a lot of a-ha moments about not just understanding a little bit more about what’s in these students’ backyards, but seeing how this patch of snow that we spent the day walking on and investigating is related to a greater community,” Goldie says. This winter, the task has provided a nice respite from more screen-based learning than usual. He’s at work now developing curriculum that could be shared with other schools.

This week, Community Snow Observations project is running a worldwide “snow chase data collection contest.” The five people who gather the most snowpack data will win Backcountry Access packs. All entries have to be more than 100 meters apart but can be taken anywhere you can find snow. A spike in inputs from Colorado could encourage researchers to target this area for developing new snow distribution models.

But even after the contest is over, Wolken still hopes more Coloradans get involved. “Particularly when it comes down to recreating in the snow,” he says, “I always want more information.”

The Year That Changed Everything

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