A partnership between SnowSchool and NASA will empower students with citizen science and help them learn about their water resources.

Fifty to 80 percent of the water that we use in the West comes from the seasonal snowpack. One out of six people in the world rely on the snowpack and glaciers for their water resources. Snow is fundamental to winter recreation, which generates $20.3 billion in the U.S. economy. The snowpack also reflects up to 80 percent of the sun’s energy, which is a vital process to regulate global temperatures.

So you can begin to understand the reasons why scientists and hydrologists need to measure the snowpack and how much water it holds.

SnowSchool has long been a bridge for students to connect snow science and winter recreation. This year, thanks to a partnership between Winter Wildlands Alliance, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) SnowEx program, and a platform called Community Snow Observations, SnowSchool is excited to add a citizen science element that will allow our students to play a role in helping scientists do the important work of measuring and monitoring the snowpack. 

SnowEx was established to develop remote sensing technologies that will measure and analyze the snowpack. 

“We have two things about snow that are typically big unknowns that we’re really trying to improve information on,” says Hans Peter Marshall, a snow scientist at Boise State University and the Program Lead at NASA SnowEx. Marshall is also a Winter Wildlands Ambassador and has long been an influential leader to help SnowSchool develop its curriculums. 

The first unknown that SnowEx is trying to answer is called the snow-water equivalent, or how much water is frozen in the snow. “Right now, knowing how much SWE is in the mountains is the biggest source of uncertainty in the hydrologic models that predict how much water we have,” says Marshall. The other big focus of SnowEx is to improve scientist’s understanding about surface-energy balance, which is about the timing of snowmelt and how fast water will flow downstream. 

“Snow cover is so dynamic,” says Marshall. “A big chunk of our country is covered in snow and then it’s not. And when it’s covered in snow, most of the energy is going back out to space. And when it’s not, most of that energy is absorbed by the earth’s surface. That’s where the climate piece is really, really important.”

How much water does the snowpack hold? Photo Credit: Julie Brown

The goal, ultimately, is to launch a satellite that will measure the amount of snow on our planet at any given time. To get there, SnowEx has a few different puzzle pieces to work with. This winter, NASA will be flying aircrafts in Colorado, California, and Idaho to test out different types of technical instruments. One can take three-dimensional photographs of the topography, which can be applied with a before-and-after method to see measure snow depth. Another instrument uses LIDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, which uses a laser to scan the surface of the earth. As scientists conduct tests with instruments like those, NASA needs people on the ground—citizen scientists—to collect real data from the snowpack that can be used to verify the SnowEx results. Those citizen scientists are SnowSchool students. 

“That’s one of the places where SnowSchool has a really neat way that fits in,” said HP Marshall. “SnowSchool is a nationwide program with sites in different places, and there are actually quite a few sites that overlap with the places that we’re flying. It’s about finding the places where SnowSchool sites will be valuable to basically test how well these different aircraft instruments are doing.”

There are several SnowSchool sites located in the flight paths for SnowEx this winter. As the planes fly overhead, our students will be on snowshoes, taking samples of snow to measure SWE and uploading their information to a database hosted by Community Snow Observations. 

SnowSchool began in 2001 as a way to encourage outdoor winter recreation in young people. We quickly realized the power of winter as an outdoor classroom and learning environment, and SnowSchool quickly grew into a curriculum that bridges snow science with recreation. And now, thanks to our partnership with NASA, SnowSchool gives students the opportunity to play a role in science. 

We need your help to empower more kids with citizen science. A membership to Winter Wildlands Alliance costs $35. Your money goes directly to supporting programs like SnowSchool, which introduces winter to 35,000 kids every single year. If we want to keep winter wild, we have to empower the next generation.

 

The bell is ringing for the new school year. And we’re gearing up for another season of SnowSchool, our program that takes the classroom outside in the middle of winter to teach kids about snow with a science-based, experiential curriculum. 

We have big things in store for this year’s program—including a partnership with NASA to turn our students into citizen scientists! (Stay tuned for more information on that big news.)

To get our brains back in shape, here’s a bit of snow trivia that may come in handy at some point on a long, flat stretch of skin track this winter. 

 

How many sides does a snow crystal have? 

Six! Snow crystals have six sides because of how the water molecules stack up to form an ice lattice. You’ll never find one with four, five, or eight sides. On a rare occasion, you might find a three- or 12-sided snow crystal—although, no one really knows what weather conditions are best for making these anomalies.

 

Shine Power

Snow-covered sea ice reflects as much as 90 percent of incoming solar radiation. This is much higher than other surfaces on earth. The ocean, by comparison, reflects about six percent of incoming solar radiation. Sea ice, on its own, has a lot of reflection power, but it’s even stronger with a layer of snow on top. 

 

Not too hot, not too cold, just right

The largest and most photogenic snow crystals, called stellar dendrites, are also the most finicky. They only grow in a narrow temperature range that hovers between 0 and -10 degrees Fahrenheit.  

 

A graph showing the different types of snowflakes and the temperatures that create them.

 

Drinking water

As seasons change, so does our snowpack. It melts into streams, rivers, and lakes. Our snowpack accounts for about 75 percent of water in the American West. However, the snowpack is becoming less reliable as a source of drinking water because of climate change. 

 

A dust problem

Dust trapped in the snow may be a bigger problem than you think. Scientists are finding that dust causes snow to get darker, which means it absorbs more sunlight and melts faster than it would otherwise. If there’s a lot of dust, the sun’s radiation will make our snowpacks melt a lot faster, which has big implications for things like erosion, wildfires, and drinking water.