Silverton’s Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies (CSAS) is aiding in NASA’s five-year SnowEx project, which aims to provide important information about snowpack.

“They want to sense snow water equivalent from space,” said Jeff Derry, executive director of CSAS.

Measuring snow depth from space is one thing, but this type of analysis doesn’t show how much water the snowpack actually contains. This is really important from a water management standpoint, especially in water-stressed regions like Colorado.

On a mission to know more about the snow that’s seen from space, NASA is taking advantage of infrastructure at CSAS’s Senator Beck Study Area, just west of Red Mountain Pass.

“This year, every single week, they’re flying over with aircraft taking airborne measurements,” says Derry. “While they’re in the air taking measurements, we’re on the ground taking field observations so they can compare.”

NASA is conducting weekly flyovers of a dozen Colorado study sites this winter, including Grand Mesa, Fraser Forest, and Niwot Ridge. It’s vital that teams on the ground corroborate the measurements they get from the air, because NASA’s snow sense technology still needs plenty of troubleshooting.

“Measuring snow from space is very challenging,” says NASA research scientist Dr. Charles Gatebe, who helped run SnowEx in 2017 and continues to be involved in planning its future moves. “We want to test some of the technologies that the community has developed to see how well they work, where they fail, and why they fail.”

Gatebe explains that while the project is limited to Colorado this year, the ultimate goal is to be able to measure snow worldwide, in any climate. That gets complicated, fast.

“When we’re dealing with, say, Boreal Forest up in Alaska, we have problems with lots of trees,” Gatebe explains. “It’s very difficult to measure snow when you have trees.”

Measuring snow water equivalent through dense trees is just one of many hurdles Gatebe foresees.

The prairies of the midwest U.S. often have thin layers of snow that melt away quickly, while the mountains of the American pacific northwest have an impenetrably deep, wet snowpack. All of these “snow climates,” as Gatebe calls them, present different challenges for the future satellite’s instrumentation.

The planes flying over Colorado this year are equipped with LIDAR, which measures snow depth. A suite of other technologies onboard attempt to complete the picture – thermal imaging, passive microwave technology, and topographic sensors among them.

It’s too soon to say when the completed satellite will launch. But, Gatebe says they’ve made progress, and plan to expand their study sites to Alaska in the coming years.

“Snow is water, snow is life,” says Dr. Gatebe. “We depend on it. Especially in these times, when the climate is changing very quickly, it’s very important to be able to estimate snow.”

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