Did huge mountain snow cause local river overflow?

With a huge spring snowpack in many places around the mountain west, we checked in with our national network about the impact to their local watersheds.

Photo Credit: Jason Hummel (@jasonhummel)


SnowSchool’s Snow-to-Water Connection

It was mid-April at our National Flagship SnowSchool Site at Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area, and SnowSchool students were still arriving by the-bus-load. While April SnowSchool is certainly not unheard of, what was surprising to see this spring was the snow piled up around the parking area nearly as high as the big yellow bus dropping the kids off.  In past years I’ve witnessed a bone dry parking area as early as the first week of March. The huge snowfall in many places across the country contributed to a banner year for SnowSchool, as the program engaged over 35,000 participants across 72 active locations spanning 17 states. All the snow provided ample opportunity for K-12 students to explore the local winter wildlands on snowshoes!  

And while mountain snow is certainly fun, it’s also 75-80% of the annual water supply in the Western US. So the connection between mountain snow and water is an essential SnowSchool science lesson takeaway. To help drive the point home, we annually host our Snowpack Prediction Challenge for thousands of SnowSchool students across the country. The concept behind the activity is relatively simple: participants are challenged to use current and historical snowpack data to make a prediction about the amount of snow that their local watershed will receive during the coming winter, with prizes given out for what end up being the most accurate predictions. It’s fun, but this science extension activity and wrap-up presentation also has some good research showing that it really helps kids learn about science.  “We watched the wrap-up video yesterday and the kids were so stoked!” said the 4th grade teacher from the winning classroom of students in Colorado.  

In these wrap-up discussions with classrooms of SnowSchool students, no topic was hotter than speculating about the amount of water that might come from historically high snowpack levels. So to shed some light on this watershed issue we gathered updates from our national network. 

Snow-to-Water Highlights from Our Nation’s Watersheds

While there is no way to pull off a comprehensive analysis of the impact to the entire country in a single blog post, we compiled and are actively requesting highlights that help tell the story of local watersheds nationally. Want to input your local watershed story? Click and enter your update here!

Want to look up information about the snowpack in your local watershed? An easy place to start is by zooming in on your location on the Interactive NRCS SNOTEL Map for April 1, 2023.  For more in depth information about the snow-to-water connection in your area check out the Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program

SnowSchool’s Snowpack Prediction Challenge

Scientists have been monitoring mountain snow for decades with remote instrumentation. During the SnowSchool field trip students learn about snow science instruments, and visit their local weather station (when possible). Using decades of historical snowpack data provided in collaboration with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s SNOTEL weather stations, and US Forest Service remote mountain weather stations, students calculate averages and analyze recent precipitation trends to make informed predictions. Specifically, SnowSchool asks students/participants, “What do you think the maximum snowpack depth measurement and the maximum snow water equivalency measurement will be over the course of the winter?” This activity generally simulates the approach snow hydrologists take when making snowpack and streamflow forecasts. 

Once predictions are submitted the students and teachers track winter storms, snow accumulation and melting using online resources well into April, May and early June. The result is a 3-4 month learning experience and snow hydrology exploration!  

This year the project concluded with live and recorded presentations that examined what happened in watersheds across the west, what snowpack levels (drought vs abundance) mean for the students local community and the impact of climate change on mountain snow. Extending our SnowSchool students’ learning experience and connecting it back to the classroom and virtual learning in this manner ensures that SnowSchool makes good on its aspiration to foster ecological literacy among our youngest generation.