NASA breaking into snow biz

Space agency's project to help feds track West's most vital resource

NASA scientists with a unique new project work to put up weather instruments at the Mesa Lakes Ranger Station on Grand Mesa in October. Pictured left to right are Ludovic Brucker, Alex Studd-Sojka, Hans-Peter Marshall, Clint Boaz and Paul Houser.

When western Coloradans think of NASA, they most likely think of things like launching rockets that light up the sky at Cape Canaveral and scratchy audio communications between distant astronauts and the Mission Control Center in Houston.

This winter, they may encounter NASA scientists in a seemingly unlikely setting — on snowshoes, skis or snowmobiles on Grand Mesa, studying snow instead of space. Working in cooperation with others including the U.S. Forest Service, the scientists will be measuring and otherwise analyzing snowpack, all for the advancement of a global mission to use tools in space to better measure and understand a resource of crucial importance back on Earth.

Over three weeks beginning Feb. 6, some 100 researchers from NASA and other institutions from the United States and beyond will descend on Grand Mesa for field work in support of NASA’s SnowEx project. SnowEx stands for snow experiment, a multiyear project that seeks to address how much water is stored in snow-covered regions on Earth. Knowing that is important because snowpack’s roles range from providing an important source of water supply to acting as an indicator of a changing climate.

The goal of the project is to determine how to deploy a suite of sensors in satellites in space as a means of measuring snowpack at a global scale to a degree now not possible.

“Snow’s just so important in so many ways to society that it’s really critical to get out there and make these measurements and figure out how to measure snow from satellites in space,” said Edward Kim, lead scientist for SnowEx.

For the research project, scientists wanted to tackle the significant challenges forested areas pose for remotely measuring snowpack because of interference from tree canopies. NASA had all kinds of options when it came to places that might be appropriate for doing the research, but as it turns out Grand Mesa — who knew? — best fits the bill for such work.

“We did a really exhaustive comparison of several dozen sites on the continental U.S., Canada, Alaska, even a few over in Europe. Basically Grand Mesa met all of our scientific and logistical requirements,” Kim said.

Logistically speaking, NASA needed a location not far from a major airport for scientists flying in, and with transportation access not being too difficult from there to the field sites. Having lodging available also was a factor, and Grand Mesa Lodge and Mesa Lakes Lodge will be helping with putting up the roughly 40 to 50 researchers expected to be on site during any given week, Kim said. He noted, however, that scientists aren’t averse to winter camping if necessary.

“Snow researchers, we work in the Arctic, the Antarctic, so Grand Mesa is pretty mild” by comparison, he said.

Kim said the primary reasons for picking Grand Mesa were scientific. Among other things, researchers wanted a relatively flat area with a range of snow depths and forest conditions.

“Grand Mesa really checked all those boxes,” he said.

Researchers also wanted to do some work this winter requiring more of a basin environment with a stream gauge, and for that they chose Senator Beck Basin near Red Mountain Pass in southwest Colorado. That’s already the longtime research site for the Center for Snow & Avalanche Studies, which Kim said made it even more attractive because it’s well understood from a scientific standpoint and NASA can augment some existing measurement instruments there.

On Grand Mesa, NASA will be relying on one augmented existing weather station, four more temporary stations installed by NASA, as well as other means of data gathering including manual measurements by researchers spreading out across the mesa. Kim said crews will be walking marked transects of about 100 meters each, taking snow depth measures along the way. They’ll also dig pits to analyze the vertical structure of the snowpack.

Researchers visited Grand Mesa in late September and early October to mark transects with poles and install weather stations ahead of February’s project. They also obtained baseline, snow-free measurements that are a necessary part of using and testing some sensors.

The February work will involve employing a number of aerial snow survey devices and then ground-truthing their accuracy based on the field and weather station measurements. Use of infrared sensors, microwaves, an imaging spectrometer, and LiDAR, a light-based ground surveying method, are among the ways snow can be measured and otherwise analyzed from the air. Various methods have their limitations, including reduced performance in forests. Airplanes provided by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory will fly over Grand Mesa in February, sometimes possibly as little as 1,000 feet off the ground, to make use of a variety of airborne sensors.

The idea is to check the air-based measurements versus those on the ground, and develop algorithms for satellite-based sensors that can be used at a global scale for measuring the amount of water in snow and doing other snow survey work.

That’s important because the impacts of snowpack are global, Kim said.

Kim said that while most everyone in the West is likely familiar with the role areas of significant snowfall play in contributing to water supply, snow can be just as critical or sometimes more so in places that don’t get a lot of it. On the prairie, for example, being able to plow into the ground what little snow falls can help ensure the success of a winter crop, he said.

Society needs to understand snowpack levels not just from a water security standpoint, but because of the flood threat posed by too much snow, Kim said.

Meanwhile, from a climate-change perspective, NASA points to implications of low snowpack that range from closures of ski areas and reduced hydropower generation to increased drought due to earlier spring runoff. Less global snow cover due to a warming planet also means less solar energy is reflected and more is absorbed, which results in even more warming.

The international importance of the SnowEx project is made evident by the fact that it’s an international project, involving people representing research organizations and universities from not just the United States but Canada and Europe. Among the participants is the European Space Agency, which Kim said is providing a key airborne instrument.

Kim said the first year of the project will cost “in the low single-digit” millions of dollars, with funding for future years hinging on future budgets.

Kim said education and outreach are big parts of NASA projects, and the Grand Mesa one will include a day where local students will be able to visit and learn about the project.

Meanwhile, members of the general public are likely to run across the project while skiing and snowmobiling on Grand Mesa this winter, such as in the Jumbo Campground/Mesa Lakes Ranger Station area. Signs have been installed asking for the public’s help in leaving snow undisturbed at measurement sites.

“NASA and the Forest Service welcome interest by the public in these activities,” the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests said in a news release, while also urging people to watch for signs and not disturb snow or equipment in research areas.

NASA expects to do further overflights in the area next summer to make some more measurements once the snow is gone, and then NASA will remove its equipment from the sites.


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