This month SnowSchool concluded the 2019 season with classroom science presentations during which students and educators discussed the results of our annual Snowpack Prediction Contest…

Heavy snowfall made for a great winter, and the fun at SnowSchool continued into the spring.  Check out our video snipets and notes taken from successful outings in March and April… 

Photo- Alexandra Rose

Across the Western US mountain snow accumulated at eye popping rates in February and, in some watersheds, brought below normal snowpacks up well above average!  At SnowSchool this means plenty of fresh snow for snowshoeing, field-base snow science and just plain fun (see left). It also means that back in the classroom students have interesting current winter phenomena to study.  For example, this month SnowSchool released a new recorded webinar to help educators engage students via our unique Snowpack Prediction Contest science activity.  We based this fun science challenge on the practices and methods of snow hydrologists and integrated live and historical NRCS SNOTEL data.  The big February snow is making this into very interesting challenge for students this winter! To get all the details check out the video below. You can also find the full curriculum guide on our new Science Resources webpage along with other SnowSchool resources.


Stay tuned for more SnowSchool updates as we move into the final stretch of winter! Here’s a parting shot taken mid-storm in the final days of February-

The SnowSchool Weather Station in the Boise National Forest was nearly consumed by a February snowpack 7 feet deep! Photo Tom Black USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station


It’s January in the quiet mountain town of Greenville CA.  This is the heart of the Lost Sierra; an impressive expanse of rolling mountains and vast forest that are as remote as they are beautiful.  At Indian Valley Elementary in the Plumas County School District, it is day one of a series SnowSchool experiences planned for the 6th graders.  And just like SnowSchool outings at the other 65+ program locations across the country, this day will be filled with hands-on science in the snow-filled wilds of winter.  A unique quality of this particular SnowSchool site however, is a specific focus on connecting students with local public lands and utilizing the snow right outside the school.

Weighing snow samples

The day begins with a quick but critical classroom introduction to essential science concepts.  Students jot down notes in their field journals about concepts like watershed, water supply, snowpack depth, snow density, and the water cycle- all important foundations of the snow hydrology focused SnowSchool curriculum.  As part of the introduction educators, including Rob Wade (Plumas County’s outdoor education coordinator), hand each student a snowpack density cutter. This is the same tool used by NASA snow scientists to precisely measure snowpack water content (more on the NASA/SnowSchool connection in a bit).  The idea is that the student will extract samples of snow from the snowpack, weigh each sample and calculate the water content.  After some wrestling with the math formulas, the students are ready to head out into the school yard.

This the part that represents the most exciting innovation of this newest version of the SnowSchool program model: charging out the back door of the school to explore winter and the science of snow, not just once, but throughout the season and at every grade level Kindergarten through 12th Grade.  So as these 6th graders excitedly romp across the snow covered school yard to dig their snowpits and extract snow samples, they know this is just one of a multitude of SnowSchool experiences coming their way over the coming years.  Designed with input from educators and scientists, these activities grow in complexity and sophistication through the grade levels.   After the 6th graders weigh their samples and calculate density and snow water equivalent of the school yard they board a waiting school bus.  A quick 15 minute drive takes them higher into the Plumas National Forest in search of deeper mountain snow.   Here the students will spend the rest of their day immersed in the wilds of winter, observing wildlife, looking at snow crystals under microscopes, digging snowpits and making valley-to-mountain snowpack comparisons.

Nothing brings a team together like digging a snowpit!

Bringing SnowSchool’s unique outdoor snow science to rural school districts like Plumas County has become a top priority for Winter Wildlands Alliance in recent years.  Though it may seem counter-intuitive, data suggests that even students in rural areas with ample public lands are spending less and less time outside.  Thus SnowSchool serves as an important means to help rural students learn about, appreciate and understand the value of our public lands.

Students help each other put on snowshoes

From the beginning, a key goal of this project has been to make this model replicable in other rural school districts. Thus, several hundred miles away in the mountains of central Idaho, a similar project is underway.  Here the Basin School district is surrounded by the towering Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir trees of the Boise National Forest. Working collaboratively with WWA, the district has designed and planned snowshoe-powered SnowSchool outings for every one of the 400+ students in the district.  The science curriculum that accompanies these outings utilizes the surrounding snowpack and adjacent USFS lands.

An exciting opportunity for these Basin School District students is the upcoming 2019 NASA SnowEx campaign. The district sits directly in NASA’s proposed flight path.  This means, because of an ongoing NASA scientist / SnowSchool collaboration, these students will be collecting snowpack data in the near future that will contribute to cutting-edge NASA snow science research.  During SnowEx, scientists will be testing out new LiDAR, microwave and infrared technology designed to scan the mountain snowpack from aircraft. The hope is to one day develop the technological capacity to detect, in real-time, from an aircraft or satellite the water content of snow in a mountain watershed.  This is something increasingly valuable and critical in a changing and unpredictable climate, especially in the Western US where mountain snow contributes up to 80% of the annual water supply.  SnowSchool students on the ground will get to contribute to the research and the fine-tuning of this technology by collecting accurate snow depth and density measurements (via the Snowmetrics tools described above) for comparison.  And though the launch of NASA SnowEx 2019 has been delayed due to the government shutdown, plans for implementation remain in place. Stay tuned for more details!

National SnowSchool Director Kerry McClay demonstrates NASA snow science techniques for Plumas County 6th grade students and educators

These exciting developments wouldn’t be possible without support from our friends at The North Face Explore Fund, KEEN, REIOsprey Packs, Mountain Safety Research, CLIF Bar and Snowmetrics.  Introducing thousands of kids to the joy of being outside in winter takes a community and we appreciate everyone who has pitched in to help make it happen!

Interested in bringing SnowSchool to your community?  We add new SnowSchool sites to the national network every winter! Email Kerry McClay at for more information

Want to know more about the Plumas County CA program?  Check out their website and vision for their Learning Landscapes program that was developed in conjunction with the school district and the Feather River Land Trust.  Great stuff!

Shutdown forces closure of Mt. Rainier National Park to vehicles. KOMO News Photo  (Click to read full story.)

As the federal government shutdown drags on, its impacts are being felt by people across the country and in all walks of life, including backcountry skiers and other snowsports enthusiasts.

The vast majority of winter backcountry recreation occurs on Forest Service and Park Service lands, and since the shutdown began most of the people who care for these lands and manage the recreation that occurs upon them have been temporarily laid off from their jobs. 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed and those who are working must do so without a paycheck. Although in some places volunteers and partner organizations have stepped in to pick up trash and stock and clean outhouses, or even pay some federal employees so that they can do their jobs, this only makes up for a very small amount of what the federal agencies do. Of course backcountry skiers and the public at large, prefer to be able to access and enjoy public lands, but access without management can lead to big issues.

Access and Safety

Photo credit: National Park Service

Many of the roads and trailheads that are normally plowed for winter access are not currently being plowed or maintained. For example, all vehicle access to Rainier National Park is closed during the shutdown, and while you can walk in, there’s nowhere to park outside of the Park, therefore essentially eliminating access to Rainier. With Rainier closed, ski guides and avalanche courses are re-routing to places on Forest Service land, such as Mt Baker, increasing crowding in already busy areas.

While there are some roads on federal land that are plowed by non-federal entities, or roads that access communities and therefore must be plowed for the purposes of public safety (such as the road through Yellowstone National Park that accesses Cooke City, MT), agency staff are not able to respond to emergency calls. Although local search and rescue teams remain active, the lack of agency staffing may slow down rescues because search and rescue teams won’t have access to valuable information and logistical support. Therefore, those venturing into the backcountry, and even remote frontcountry areas, are at an elevated risk.

Trail grooming is also curtailed during the shutdown. In some areas local businesses are stepping up to cover grooming costs because their business depends on visitor access to groomed trails. Of course, in many places local partners already do the bulk of trail grooming and this grooming is not impacted by the shutdown. But, many cross-country ski trails are maintained by the Forest Service or Park Service and these trails will not be groomed during the shutdown.

Park Service Plan Would Fund Maintenance During Shutdown (Montana Public Radio)

Finally, although law enforcement staff and avalanche forecasters are still working during the shutdown because their jobs are considered essential for public safety, they’re not getting paid. For weeks. Think about that the next time you check the avalanche forecast.

Management and Stewardship

During past shutdowns National Parks have been closed to public entry, but the Trump administration has changed this policy, keeping most of the gates open despite not having any staff on hand to manage visitation. As a result, trash and filthy outhouses in National Parks have gotten a lot of press over the last couple of weeks. These are highly visible reminders of some of the essential services that federal employees provide for the public. In many places, especially popular winter recreation areas and National Parks, volunteers have stepped in to empty trash cans and clean or re-stock outhouses. Stories about the public helping to care for public lands in this visceral way have made the rounds from National Public Radio to local newspapers. However, stewardship runs much deeper than trash and toilet paper and visitor management is much more than cleaning up after the visitors. Public land managers maintain facilities, protect natural resources, and help the public to better understand and appreciate the places they visit, among many other duties.

Photo Credit: Mono County Supervisor Stacy Corless (via Facebook)

Unfortunately, some in the motorized community see the government shutdown as an opportunity to ride in Wilderness areas and other places that are closed to motor vehicles to protect natural resources, wildlife, or opportunities for quiet recreation. Stories and photos of snowmobiles riding past “no snowmobiling” signs, or high-marking Wilderness bowls are proliferating across social media as the shutdown continues. We’re quite disappointed in the lack of respect that this behavior demonstrates and we hope that our counterparts in the motorized community will soon speak out against such activities. If you see illegal snowmobile use you can document it and report it to the local Forest Service office once it re-opens. Documentation should include geo-located photos (use a smartphone), identifying features such as license plates or registration stickers, and any other information that will help law enforcement investigate and cite violators.

National Parks Face Years of Damage from Government Shutdown (National Geographic)

Finally, right now, all planning – from forest plans to timber sales – is on hold, adding delay to already lengthy processes. Partnerships, collaboratives, and other non-governmental efforts that complement these planning processes are ongoing, but without a major partner at the table – the Forest Service/BLM/Park Service – there’s only so much everybody else can do.

Research and Education

All Forest Service and Park Service/Department of Interior SnowSchool sites are closed during the shutdown. Every year Winter Wildlands Alliance’s 65-site National SnowSchool program introduces thousands of students to winter ecology and the joy of exploring public lands on snowshoes. Pulling this off depends on a complex series of community partnerships/collaborations at the local level. Every community and SnowSchool site is structured a little different, but many SnowSchool sites depend on the USFS or NPS/DOI playing a critical leadership role.

Government Shutdown Causes Slowdown in Scientific Research (NPR NEWS)

During the shutdown USFS and NPS conservation education and interpretation staff are furloughed (placing significant financial stress on these professionals). And as most public schools are back this week from the holiday break, we have seen the first wave of cancelled SnowSchool field trips. Thus far this scenario applies to about a dozen SnowSchool sites. It is difficult to gauge the cumulative impact of this as the shutdown is ongoing. However, hundreds of students can be served by just a handful of sites during a single day of SnowSchool. So if the shutdown continues it could impact thousands of would-be SnowSchool students. With a finite number of winter days and site coordinators’ limited ability to reschedule, this likely means many kids will miss out on their SnowSchool experience this year.

The good news is that SnowSchool sites operated by nordic centers, nature centers, school districts and other non-profits are still open and taking out their first groups of students this week!

Weather station maintenance – one of many services on hold during the shutdown

The shutdown is also impacting many scientific research efforts. Some of these projects directly tie into the work we do, and many more are critical to understanding climate change and snow. For example, WWA SnowSchool’s plans to collaborate with the 2019 NASA SnowEx campaign are on hold due to the shutdown. During SnowEx, NASA aircraft fly overhead in states across the West and scan mountain snowpack with new sophisticated sensors designed to detect snow water content. The plan was to have students at SnowSchool sites in relevant locations hand-collect snowpack data and send it to NASA scientists to be compared with aircraft gathered data. This would give students a very authentic citizen science learning experience! But with NASA scientists furloughed during the critical project preparation period, 2019 SnowEx may or may not be rebooted.

To help students learn more about the science of snow, WWA partnered with the US Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in 2015 to install an innovative new SnowSchool Weather Station at the National Flagship Site in Boise. Though the RMRS is closed due to the shutdown, the station continues to collect data. Problems with data collection/display may occur however if the weather station instruments needs maintenance during this period.

Similarly, the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s SNOTEL station data remains accessible for now. This is important as many student across the West study historical and current snowpack data from their local SNOTEL site as part of their SnowSchool experience. The SNOTEL program runs on funds from the previous year’s budget.

Shutdown Highlights a Larger Issue

The government shutdown has led to extensive environmental damage, restricted access, a halt in planning, and interruption of important scientific research, as well as lost wages and financial stress for hundreds of thousands people. On the bright side, this shutdown is demonstrating just how important of a role federal employees and the Agencies they work for play in protecting and managing public lands.

Visitors Chainsaw Iconic Joshua Trees in National Park During Shutdown (LiveScience)

For decades Congress has been tightening the screws on our land management agencies. The Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service all struggle with declining budgets, diminishing resources, and increased responsibility and visitor use. Our public land agencies need the funding and resources necessary to overcome infrastructure and planning backlogs and take on new challenges. People are constantly clamoring for new trails, access points, facilities, and designations but all of these take additional resources. Doing more with less only gets us so far. Congress needs to not only end the shutdown, it must also fully fund the land management agencies.

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