Snow Surveys of the Future

A white fir outfitted with snow sensors in the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

Trying to interview guys who wear backcountry skis to work can be tough…especially when trudging behind on snowshoes with a pack full of recording equipment. But my visit to the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory was worth the slog.

It’s a patch of forest at about 6,000 feet near Shaver Lake in the Southern Sierra, in what’s known as the rain-snow transition zone. The snowpack at this elevation is likely to be the first to reflect climate change as temperatures warm and snow turns to rain. Scientists at UC Merced’s Sierra Nevada Research Institute, in conjunction with UC Berkeley, have developed new, high tech sensors to intensively monitor snow melt and runoff here.

The idea of remote sensors isn’t entirely new.  The state snow survey uses some 125 automatic sensors across the whole Sierra. But this project packs a two-square-kilometer area with more than 50 sophisticated snow sensors that transmit wireless data using cell phone technology. They also measure about a dozen factors, like solar radiation, humidity, and soil moisture. You can see them, and a single tree wired with about 400 sensors, here in this photo slideshow.

This high-tech surveying sounds like a good idea, even to the guy who’s built his career doing snow surveys the old way: slogging up mountains to slide a metal pole in the snow.

“We can’t just rely upon technology and procedures developed 100 years ago and expect them to necessarily serve us well in today’s age,” said Frank Gehrke, who heads the Cooperative Snow Surveys for California’s Department of Water Resources.

Gehrke admits that “guesstimates” based on taking manual samples don’t really give us a truly accurate picture of how much water the mountains hold.

“To try to take those point measurements and attempt to compute the total volume of snow water equivalent in a given basin is really a fool’s errand,” he said. “It just simply doesn’t work.”

But it wouldn’t work to put these new wireless gizmos across the entire Sierra Nevada, either. The goal is to focus on a few critical study areas to help get a more nuanced model of the snowpack in different kinds of environments. Scientists have started installing a cluster of instruments in the American River Basin, above Folsom Dam.

For more on the technology of snow surveys present and future, listen to Sasha’s radio story on The California Report.

  • Julie Jones

    How can anyone or anything predict snow or weather in the future when weather modification programs are now in place with aerosol spraying, geoengineering? Massive spraying of aerosols this year has resulted in a lot of snow – great for CA wines and crops in the Central Valley… and resorts. What if “they” change the flight patterns next year and create a drought???? See californiaskywatch.com and geoengineeringwatch.org. Be afraid.

  • Don

    Honestly,It really doesnt matter.Californa and the central valley need to have several Dams buit .The last dams like millerton andPine flat were built in the late 1940 to early 1950 .Were dealing with 50 year old water projects that have out been outgrown due to population growth and projections .They were talking about building some dams 25 years ago and nothing occured and they were screaming about water shortages then as well . It seems that no matter if we have a very wet year or dry year thier are always political debates and threats of higher water rates.

    Until they build more Dams in our mountains and foothills we will always be short water especially more so in the future .they know it and the state knows it and the Fedealgovernment knows it .The people can expect to just pay more money for what water they get or allowed to have and thats wre it will be at . Water and food are Governments responcabilities that they should take seriously .Instead they can choose to give billions of dollars out to foreign Nations rather than build America back up for the future .

    • Craig Miller

      As you probably know, there are two or three “surface storage” projects in the water bond that’s been pushed back to next year for voter approval, including a brand new reservoir off the main trunk of the Sacramento. When assemblyman Jared Huffman spoke to a recent water conference in Sacramento, he said he thought the bond’s “chances in 2012 will be no better than they were in 2010.”