Scientists seek US backcountry skiers to measure snowpack

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This April, 2017, photo provided by the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys shows geologist Katreen Wikstrom Jones using an avalanche probe to measure snow depth at Thompson Pass, Alaska. Researchers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska are looking for backcountry enthusiasts who want to aid a science mission. A program funded by NASA is recruiting citizen scientists to measure snow levels in mountain terrain. (Gabriel Wolken/Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys via AP) (Associated Press)
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January 5
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — America’s space agency wants you to head for the mountains with a smartphone and a measuring stick.

NASA’s earth science arm is funding research that recruits citizen scientists on skis, snowshoes and snowmobiles to measure snow depth in backcountry locations of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

Their measurements will be incorporated into computer models that calculate how much water will end up in the region’s rivers and reservoirs.

Early results have been promising.

“Our initial model runs show that citizen science measurements are doing an amazing job of improving our simulations,” said David Hill, an Oregon State University professor of civil engineering, who is collaborating with Alaska and University of Washington researchers. They received one of 16 NASA citizen science grants for the project.

 The snowpack measurements are incorporated into computer models estimating “snow-water equivalent,” the amount of liquid water contained in snow cover, of a watershed.

In western states, according to NASA, nearly three-fourths of annual stream flow that provides drinking water comes from spring and summer melt.

NASA in February began a multiyear research project to improve the accuracy of its snow measurements with partners in Europe and Canada, trying to solve challenges such as detecting snow through trees.

The grant awarded to Hill, Anthony Arendt of the University of Washington and Gabriel Wolken, a research geologist with the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys, is not directly connected to that project but has a mutual interest, said Kevin Murphy, a program executive for science data systems at NASA headquarters.

“We decided about two years ago to start this program, which really looks at how can we harness the creativity and the capabilities of citizens to augment a lot of our satellite or aircraft measurements,” Murphy said.

Snow telemetry stations maintained by the U.S. Agriculture Department are another important tool for measuring snow in high-elevation and other hard-to-access places, Hill said. The unmanned stations collect data using a system of automated sensors.

But too few of them exist, Hill said. “They’re expensive to install, they’re expensive to maintain, so there just aren’t that many.”

 The citizen snow-measuring program, Community Snow Observations , aims to supplement that with people.

“We want to turn the public into these mobile snow telemetry stations,” he said. “You just need a probe to do it.”

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