Stories in the Snow is a citizen science program led by the Desert Research Institute that involves students and community members in taking pictures of freshly-fallen snow crystals. These pictures, tagged with their timestamp and location, are helping scientists better understand patterns of precipitation in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We live in a dry region that is dependent on snowpack for water, so understanding the movement of pockets of moisture and the relationship between pollution in the air and snowfall is important for water resource management.
The science behind the project is based on the fact that snow crystal shapes are determined mainly by the temperature and humidity in the cloud layers where they form and fall. So, warmer and wetter snow storms will produce different snow crystal shapes than very cold and dry snow storms.
When it is snowing, citizen scientists go outside and collect photos of snow crystals with a macro lens and smartphone. They then share the images using the Citizen Science Tahoe mobile phone app, and our scientists examine the shape of the snow crystal, as well as riming and aggregation for insights about the weather.
What kind of pictures are submitted? The close-up images contain a multitude of snow crystal shapes and sizes. Many people conjure up images of star-shaped snow crystals (called stellar dendrites), but in fact there are dozens of shapes that can be found, including needles (which fall in relatively warmer storms), plates (in dryer storms), and columns (in colder storm systems).
In the 2018-2019 winter, 24 classes throughout the Lake Tahoe and Truckee Meadows regions of California and Nevada participated in Stories in the Snow. When queried about the most important things students gain from participating in the project, teachers felt that participating in citizen science and gathering data for real research was the most valuable. Teachers also noted that students’ level of engagement was high while working on the project, and opportunities to learn about the science behind snow crystal were beneficial.