Snow is dynamic, beautiful, exciting and sometimes frightening. Snow is also an essential, life-sustaining part of the water cycle. When snow falls in the mountains it forms a natural reservoir, storing water in the winter and then releasing it gradually through the summer melt season. You may have wondered why mountain streams continue to flow throughout the dry summer months? Usually they are fed by snow and ice stored high above during the previous winter.
Plants, animals and humans living downstream of mountain snowpacks depend on the water provided by melting snow. Salmon are very sensitive to stream conditions that are directly controlled by water from melting snow. Many different plants thrive on the nutrients carried by snow melt water. Humans also rely on snowpacks for a variety of reasons. Snowpacks provide a slow release of water to refill streams, lakes, aquifers and reservoirs, and help sustain these critical freshwater sources during dry periods. Human activities can be disrupted when snow creates hazards through rapid melting or avalanches.
Given how important snow is for fish, wildlife, recreation and human activity, it’s no surprise that scientists work hard to figure out just how much snow has landed on the ground. We use shovels and snow probes, but covering the vast Alaskan landscape this way is not possible. Fortunately we have two additional tools at our disposal. We measure snow from aircraft or from satellites (remote sensing), which gives us big-picture estimates of snow cover and depth. And, we use computer simulation models to predict snow conditions based on atmospheric conditions.
While remote sensing and computer models are very useful, they have their own limitations. Many remote sensing methods, because they are collected so far out in space, do not have the fine detail needed for may applications. Remote sensing methods also perform poorly when there is water in the snow. Computer models require measurements of atmospheric conditions such as temperature and humidity which are not always available in mountain regions. The accuracy of these models increases dramatically when we know more about how much and where the snow has accumulated.
This is where citizen scientists come in. The power of community science is that all of us together can make many more measurements than any one person or any scientific team. We can cover more ground together, and we need your help! With the Mountain Hub smart-phone app, you can make snow-depth measurements as you travel. Then we analyze the data, integrate it into our models and remote sensing products, and share the results back to the community.