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Individual Highlight

Forest Service partners with NASA to better understand snow in forested areas

Photo of Researcher conducts research in a snow pit, measuring the depth of the snow and evaluating snow crystals to understand their stability and amount of water held in them. Researcher conducts research in a snow pit, measuring the depth of the snow and evaluating snow crystals to understand their stability and amount of water held in them. Snapshot : More than one-sixth of the world’s population rely on seasonal snow for water. In the western U.S., nearly three-quarters of the annual streamflow that provides the water supply arrives as spring and summer melt from the mountain snowpacks. SnowEx is a NASA-led science campaign that combines on-the-ground measurements with aerial and remote sensing to improve measurements and techniques for identifying the amount of water in snow. U.S. Forest Service scientists are playing a key role in the SnowEx ground campaign.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Elder, Kelly J.  
Research Location : Colorado
Research Station : Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS)
Year : 2017
Highlight ID : 1330


Seasonal snow melts and provides water for more than one-sixth of the world’s population. Knowing how much water will be provided to streams from snow is important. Ranchers and farmers depend on this water for their livelihoods. Cities depend on this information to know how much water they will have for their citizens. It is also important to know this for determining risk of flooding and water available for wildlife and fish. Snow is also important to climate, as it reflects sunlight and loss of snow cover means the earth will absorb more light, accelerating warming. Right now, predictions of the snow-water equivalent, or how much water from the seasonal snowpack will melt into streams, vary widely, which makes accurate planning difficult. To address this problem, scientists and resource managers have come together under the leadership of NASA to launch a campaign, SnowEx, to better understand the snow-water equivalent. For decades, satellites have monitored how much snow covered Earth’s surface. Scientists also have been on the ground monitoring snow depth, in an attempt to best-estimate the snow-water equivalent. For this intensive campaign, scientists from across the world came together for one month in Colorado to see if new sensors on aircraft and improved ground techniques could provide accurate estimates. NASA enlisted Forest Service research hydrologist Kelly Elder to lead the ground campaign. Elder coordinated more than 100 research volunteers to collect data on the ground during the course of the campaign. This data allows the team to validate the information collected via the air campaign. NASA used five different types of aircraft that carried ten types of sensors, such as thermal infrared cameras, imaging spectrometers, and lasers to measure snow depth through tree cover.Ground equipment was installed in September 2016. The SnowEx campaign took place over the month of February 2017. During this time, researchers were positioned at various ground sites and in airplanes to collect data. Data is stored at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and undergoing evaluation by participating scientists. The data will be available to the public at no cost. For more information please visit NASA's SnowEx website.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • Colorado State University
  • Environment Canada
  • NASA, Universities Space Research Association, ATA Aerospace LLC Boise State University
  • U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory