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. 

Kids in Winter Wildlands Alliance SnowSchool run in the mountains and throw snowballs on snowshoes

We’re getting ready for another winter to get kids outside and in the snow!

As teachers and students across the country prepare to head back to the classroom this month, we’re also getting ready for the next season of SnowSchool. We’re especially excited to bring a new and expanded version of SnowSchool to school districts like the Basin School District in rural Idaho.

“At Idaho City High School and Basin Elementary School, we are implementing SnowSchool from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade.” said Superintendent Brian Hunicke.  “It’s a great way to get kids outside in the winter time, into nature, get them snowshoeing and involved in snow science and all kinds of STEM activities.”

To bring SnowSchool to students in the Basin School District, Hunicke and district teachers are making use of snow-covered forests, school district land, and U.S. Forest Service lands that surround the schools.

Hunicke worked collaboratively with WWA SnowSchool over the past year to develop a winter science curriculum suitable for engaging all students across the district, and this coming winter provides a pivotal opportunity to implement the increasingly refined plan.

“The kindergartners are coming out and learning some basics of snow and snowshoeing and then we’ve scaffolded the learning all the way up to 12th grade, where they are doing some snow surveys, integrating math, calculating slope, things like that.  And we have everything in between, a huge range of activities,” said Hunicke. “If we are lucky, we have about two months out of the year where we have a pretty fair amount of snow, so we are able to come out here and do math and snow science.”

We’re especially excited about Basin School District for another big initiative we’ve got planned this year: integrating our program with the NASA SnowEx citizen science project.

This NASA Earth Science mission aims to further advance new technology and remotely detect snow-water content from aircraft and, ultimately, an orbiting satellite. The Basin School District happens to sit in NASA’s 2019-20 flight path. NASA needs students to collect snow density samples and send their measurements to researchers so they can compare  on-the-ground data with information collected from the aircraft.

WWA ambassador and Boise State University snow scientist Hans-Peter Marshall is leading the mission. Several of the aircraft flight paths in California, Idaho, and Colorado will fly directly over SnowSchool sites, just like the Basin School District.  This project presents an exciting and authentic citizen science opportunity for SnowSchool students.

High-level science is certainly part of the SnowSchool curriculum, however, the ultimate goal of the program remains. We simply want to connect kids with nature in the winter.

“The nice thing about winter is it’s the perfect time to get kids outside. They are all stuck inside and they get a little antsy. This is the perfect time of year to get kids outside and get some exercise,” said Hunicke.

Every year, Winter Wildlands Alliance teaches dozens of educators across the country about fun and hands-on activities to do with kids in the winter.  After going through our SnowSchool training, Superintendent Hunicke showed the 8th graders in Idaho City how to cut igloo blocks using a snow saw. Every student got to cut a few igloo blocks and contribute to the finished product!

Big SnowSchool shout-out to our friends at KEEN Effect and Mountain Safety Research for helping make this project possible!

One last thing: The SnowBall semi-formal shindig is on the calendar for October 25, during our Wild Weekend. Mark your calendars and get your tickets. It’s going to be a super fun night of dancing, live music, and drinks!