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SnowEx: partnering with NASA to better understand snow in forested areas

Date: October 11, 2017

Science campaign seeks to better understand the water amounts in snow


Seasonal snow melts and provides water for more than one-sixth of the world’s population. Knowing how much water will be provided to streams from snow is important. Ranchers and farmers depend on this water for their livelihoods. Cities depend on this information to know how much water they will have for their citizens. It is also important to know this for determining risk of flooding and water available for wildlife and fish. Snow is also important to climate, as it reflects sunlight and loss of snow cover will mean the earth will absorb more light, accelerating warming. Right now, predictions of the snow-water equivalent, or how much water from the seasonal snowpack will melt into streams, vary widely, which makes accurate planning difficult.

To address this, scientists and resource managers have come together under the leadership of NASA to launch a campaign, SnowEx, to better understand the snow-water equivalent.SnowEx photo collage including snow pit, aircraft used for aerial data collection, and researchers working in the field during the ground campaign

Research Information

For decades, satellites have monitored how much snow covered the Earth’s surface. Scientists have also been on the ground monitoring snow depth, in an attempt to best-estimate the snow-water equivalent. For this intensive campaign, scientists from across the world came together for one month in Colorado to see if new sensors on aircraft and improved ground techniques could provide accurate estimates.

NASA enlisted RMRS Research Hydrologist and Snow Scientist, Kelly Elder, to lead the ground campaign. Dr. Elder coordinated over 100 research volunteers to collect data on the ground during the course of the campaign. This data would allow the team to validate the information collected via the air campaign. NASA used five different types of aircraft that carried ten types of sensors, like thermal infrared cameras, imaging spectrometers and lasers for measuring snow depth through tree cover.

Key Findings

  • Ground equipment was installed in September 2016.

  • The SnowEx campaign took place over the month of February 2017. During this time, researchers were positioned at various ground sites and in airplanes to collect data.

  • Data is being stored at the National Snow and Ice Data Center and is currently being evaluated by participating scientists. The data will be available to the public at no cost. 

For more information please visit NASA's SnowEx website.

Principal Investigators: 
Principal Investigators - External: 
Edward Kim - NASA
External Partners: 
Boise State University
Colorado State University
Environmental Canada
European Space Agency
Michigan State University
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Oregon State University
Scripps Institute of Oceanography
Univ. of Alaska
Univ. of California, Los Angeles
Univ. of California, Santa Barbara
Univ. of Colorado
Univ. of Maryland
Research Location: