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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.

By Kerry McClay

While its still technically the “pre-season”, many SnowSchool sites are working hard to train leaders for the coming winter.  This is especially true at sites that rely heavily on volunteer educators, such as Discover Your Forest in Bend OR.  This past week I headed over to Mt Bachelor (the site of DYF’s SnowSchool program) to provide a professional development workshop for 25 staff and volunteer educators.  And while many of the training sessions I provide each year tend to focus on experiential education for elementary students, this training focused on WWA’s unique middle/high school science curriculum.

Of course, we all remember our high school snow science class, right? Yep, didn’t think so.  Even though mountain snow supplies up to 80% of the water in many communities in the western United States, it remains an understudied and overlooked topic. To fill this void we partnered with NASA snow scientists in 2014 to develop a unique curriculum especially for older students based on modern field techniques.  For example, participants in this program calculate snow/water equivalent (the water content of the snow) with density cutters and spring scales (left) and also examine snow crystal morphology with high powered macro-scopes (below). The result has created repeat SnowSchool experiences for middle and high school that builds on their same initial science adventure they completed as elementary school kids.  

This programmatic addition is great fit at a SnowSchool site like Discover Your Forest, which annually engages over 2,000 elementary students from the Bend Oregon area.  Karen Gentry (DYF Education Director) and Bess Ballantine (DYF Education and Stewardship Coordinator) reached out to WWA to request support in developing this program to serve students in their community.  In addition to supplying the SnowSchool curriculum and activity guide, I was able to travel to Bend to provide a free training for the DYF volunteers and educators.  This included a classroom presentation on core concepts and a field day filled with hands-on science based on NASA field techniques!

At this point you may be asking, “Why is NASA involved in snow science?”   And the answer is pretty interesting… Snow science as a field has emerged relatively recently as questions about the Cryosphere (the snow and ice covered areas of the world) have become increasingly important over the past half-century.  Technology innovations have accelerated interest in improving the scientific community’s ability to estimate the water content of certain snow and ice covered areas (such as local watersheds and polar ice caps).  This is becoming increasingly relevant as climate change reduces polar ice and appears to be altering traditional local snowfall patterns.   To reduce our dependence on outdated historical snowpack data trends NASA is developing the capacity to estimate the water content of a snowpack using radar from aircraft (like a helicopter), and eventually from an orbiting satellite.  But accomplishing this goal requires scientists to first improve their knowledge of the snowpack itself.  In January 2014 at the Fraser Experimental Forest the NASA Snow Working Group held its’ first ever field workshop to improve scientists’ knowledge of snow.  Atmospheric scientists, physicists, geologists, engineers, statisticians (and one curriculum specialist!) all spent five days neck deep in the Colorado snow making careful hand tool measurements and gaining a greater appreciation of the complexities of a mountain snowpack.  This field course formed the foundation of the SnowSchool snow science curriculum for middle and high school students.

The purpose of the SnowSchool program has always been to give kids a rich hands-on learning experience that connects them with their local ecosystem.  Exploring their local winter wildlands on snowshoes is fun and helps kids build an emotional connection to the natural world.  By studying the same snow that will eventually supply their homes and communities with water in the spring and summer months, SnowSchool is helping kids create a personal connection with, and interest in, real science.

Kerry McClay, Ed.D. is WWA’s National SnowSchool Director

Contact him at kmcclay@winterwildlands.org for more information