Thursday, March 14, 2013

SnowNews is Good News

Snow Water Equivalent map for the central Rockies
Despite what your own feelings about snow may be, there is no question that winter snow in the western United States does more than provide scenic landscapes or downhill runs for skiers. The snow that piles up in the mountains of the western U.S. during the winter provides 50 to 80 percent of the annual water supply used for drinking, irrigation for agriculture, and water needed to maintain flows in rivers and streams for power generation.

The snow that falls each autumn through early spring eventually melts as the weather warms, and the runoff from the snow melt is captured in lakes and reservoirs or flows through streams and tributaries into major rivers such as the Colorado and Columbia. In order to be able to successfully manage this resource water managers need to have information on how much snow has accumulated, where it has accumulated, and most importantly the water content of the snow. Since the 1930s the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has coordinated the Federal, state, and private efforts to measure and evaluate the snowpack in the western U.S.

If you think measuring the water content of 15 inches of snow with a CoCoRaHS gauge is difficult, measuring mountain snow tens of feet deep and its water content is a whole other ballgame. It takes specialized equipment, skills, and training to conduct these snow surveys. The monitoring of the mountain snow made strides in the late 1970s when the first SNOTEL (for snow telemetry) stations were put into operation. There are currently more than 730 SNOTEL sites in 11 states, including Alaska, that collect and transmit data in near real-time to a central computer in Portland, Oregon. Most are located in areas that are difficult to access.

A SNOTEL site in Truckee, California

The NRCS National Water and Climate Center and the Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program publish a quarterly newsletter called SnowNews. It's not just about snow, but there is plenty of snow-related content. It is a comprehensive newsletter that addresses water and climate related topics that impact all resource managers and stakeholders (e.g. commercial, government, tribal, non-government organizations).  It has the latest news on web-related resources, what’s happening within NRCS water supply monitoring networks (SNOTEL covering the western states and SCAN, the Soil Climate Analysis Network, covering the nation). The just-released Spring 2013 issue features an article on the implications of the current drought in much of the U.S. and the seasonal water supply forecast for the western United States.

You can learn more about the importance of snow in the west and how this critical resource is monitored in Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting.

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