The Future of Snow: Small Humans Take on Big Questions

By Kerry McClay, National SnowSchool Director at Winter Wildlands Alliance

Photo by SOLE Experiences (@sole_experiences) in Sandpoint, Idaho (Unceded Salish, Kootenai, and Kalispel lands)

This write-up was originally featured in our Fall 2022 Trail Break issue.

It’s a cold sunny day in early February and one of the teachers in our SnowSchool group says what most of us are quietly thinking: “I wonder when we’ll get some more snow?” Standing at the edge of the high school football field in rural Idaho City, Idaho, it’s clear that though December was unusually snowy, a cold dry-spell has now settled across the central Idaho mountains for the foreseeable future.

As we watch, pairs of fourth graders scamper on snowshoes across the hard icy snow, looking for undisturbed spots to conduct their snow survey data collection. Equipped with shovels, thermometers and yardsticks, some of the kids laugh as they dig through icy snow, while others debate with their partners about the best approach. Though this school was recently awarded an official STEM Designation for their dedication to integrating such activities, today the students seem happy just to be outside. They also know that after their data collection they will finish the day with a fun-filled snowshoe romp through the nearby Ponderosa pine forest.

The students and their teachers aren’t the only ones surveying this snow-covered football field and wondering about the future of the snowpack. Every week a NASA-funded research team from nearby Boise State University surveys this same field as part of an ongoing project to further develop remote sensing technology. The team utilizes a large drone mounted with specialized radar to scan the snowpack in an attempt to measure its density. They’ll compare the drone-gathered data to data they collect by hand (using methods not too dissimilar from the fourth graders).

Photo by SOLE Experiences (@sole_experiences) in Sandpoint, Idaho (Unceded Salish, Kootenai, and Kalispel lands)

This is the future of snow science, and it is increasingly focused on making more accurate snow water content predictions in a changing and unpredictable world. Once this technology is perfected, NASA hopes to launch a satellite equipped with instruments that will ultimately help measure, perhaps even in real time, the water content of snow in mountain watersheds (and globally). In dry western states that rely on mountain snow for up to 80% of their annual water supply, the question is: how soon will this future arrive?

The overlap of SnowSchool to professional snow science is not exclusive to this location in Idaho City. Across the 70-site SnowSchool network, some 35,000 students and their teachers are annually invited to submit snowpack measurements to Community Snow Observations (CSO), another NASA-funded project that aims to improve snowpack modeling with citizen science data.

After today’s field trip, SnowSchool’s Annual Snowpack Prediction Contest asks students how much snow and water will accumulate in their mountains this winter. The students make their predictions using current and historical data from local mountain weather stations, and the closest prediction wins a prize.

At the National Flagship SnowSchool site at Bogus Basin this activity is powered by the SnowSchool Weather Station, a snow monitoring station designed and installed by the USFS Rocky Mountain research station. In other locations students use their nearest NRCS SNOTEL stations. This is all modeled after the work snow hydrologists do every winter and spring crunching snowpack numbers to help make water supply forecasts in communities across the west.

Interestingly, the US Bureau of Reclamation just hosted a snowpack prediction contest of its own. Professional research hydrologists were invited to develop high-resolution imagery of a particular watershed to develop a snowpack modeling method that can accurately predict snow water equivalent — in September of 2022 a total of $500,000 in prize money was awarded to the contests’ finalists!

This ongoing scientific push to better understand one of Earth’s most important and fleeting resources begs a question relevant to all of us: What is the future of our snow? With emerging science and our increasing technological ability to see into the future we may not find an answer we like. But we can certainly hope that our investment in this group of inspired fourth graders on this cold, dry Idaho day will keep the stewardship of mountain watersheds top of mind for at least another generation of humans.