Greater Yellowstone Microclimates and Citizen Science in the Tetons

fieldwork on snow

The snow line in the southern Tetons climbs visibly higher each day as if the 17/18 ski season is waving us goodbye. Bare ground was present within Jackson’s city limits for most of the winter, but the Snake River basin’s snow water equivalent (SWE) stacked up to 112 % of the running average (calculated by the Natural Resource conservation Service, NRCS). Bring the heat and we’ll see her go, but higher elevations have significantly more snow to keep us skiing into the spring; the weekend warrior will just have to plan on high water and muddy approaches.

fieldwork on snow
Teton Science School faculty members and graduate students have been recording snow depths while on fieldwork missions.

I moved to the Greater Yellowstone area for the fishing and hunting, but my winter arrival delivered me to a community gearing up for backcountry skiing season. Aside from the basics of avalanche awareness, one of the first bits of snow science I picked up on was the significance of microclimates. Physical changes in the snowpack are very evident across an elevation transect, but the next valley over could be experiencing a different winter at a similar elevation.

As of this Thursday Phillips Bench in Teton Pass is holding onto 32.2″ of SWE while 54.6″stands tall at Grand Targhee. Looking North, Community Snow Observations (CSO) volunteer Trevor Bloom found bare ground throughout the Lamar valley but logged close to 100″ nearby in Cooke City this past weekend.

Citizen scientists can help fill the gaps in our understanding of the snowpack. My observations on microclimates has hinted at the difficulty in quantifying alpine water storage even with abundant SnoTel sites. Snow depth models produced by Community Snow Observations would be an incredible tool for local water resource planning.

It’s reassuring to see the program gaining traction in the area, natural science circles seem to take most interest. Several mountain guides and snow scientists are interested in contributing snow depths but their fieldwork protocol requires data entry to platforms other than Mountain Hub. Backlogging existing snow observations and simply making the leap to become habitual with Mountain Hub seem to be the two factors that drive CSO involvement.

logging a snow measurement on a phone
Trevor Bloom logging a snow depth on Mountain Hub before strapping in to ski Teton Pass.

The manpower is here. Jackson, WY is a hub for nature lovers, many of whom have contributed to several other successful citizen science campaigns such as The Nature Conservancy’s Wildflower Watch and the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation’s longstanding Nature Mapping program.

CSO has seen great participation in this corner of Wyoming so far, but many citizen scientists are yet to probe into the winter programming.

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