SnowPilot: An easy way to plot and share snowpit data

doug chabot in snowpit

I started my career as an avalanche forecaster in the mid-90s when pencil and notebook were the only way to record field data about the snow. This created a significant hurdle to advancing snow science amongst practitioners: the valuable data in all our pit books was lost to researchers. Instead of being shared, pencil drawn pits throughout the world were sitting in drawers and on shelves collecting dust, likely never to be looked at again. All my stability test scores, layer notes and avalanche inspections were for my eyes only.

Typically, scientists ask a question and then collect data to get an answer. If we collected all the data in our collective pit books first, it would amount to thousands of pits from different snow climates all over the globe populating a database ready for a question. Out of this idea in 2003, SnowPilot was born. Today I still collect my snowpit data by scribbling in a Rite-in-the-Rain notebook and then enter it into the SnowPilot database where I can archive my snowpits and researchers can study them. If a researcher has a question, SnowPilot may have the answer.

doug chabot in snowpit
Doug working in a snowpit.

SnowPilot is open-source, free software that allows users to graph, record, and share database snowpit information. It is a standalone program for Windows and iOS, that populates a central database with snowpit data for use by avalanche researchers. The world’s largest snowpack database, it holds over 23,000 snowpit reports from 23 countries and 3,800 users. The data has been used in research over the last 16 years and SnowPilot snowpits have been a part of every bi-annual International Snow Science Workshop since 2004.  

After snowpit measurements are entered online an image is created that can be downloaded, shared and printed. Everything entered is controlled by the user and error-checked to ensure a clean, robust database. As a user you get to decide who can view your snowpits: everyone, just people in your work group or no one. Regardless of your public viewing choices, pits automatically populate the database and are available for research.

snow profile
Snowpit profile from near the crown of the Fin Avalanche (Absaroka Range, MT, January 2009) recorded in SnowPilot.

All Snow Pilot’s digital data is stored on a server that we can all access with a few lines of code. Community Snow Observations (CSO) approached SnowPilot with a simple question: how much snow is on the ground in the high mountains? In order to understand snow depth variability a research team would need to collect an enormous dataset over a vast region for many seasons, an impossible feat before 2003. SnowPilot makes it possible because every snowpit has a basic snow depth measurement. CSO gets access to this data: a specific location at a known time and a measured depth. These observations help them interpret satellite and other snow measurements collected by NASA and help create more accurate spring water runoff models. 

Our partnership is three years old and ongoing. The SnowPilot data might be collected for very specific use, like documenting snow stability at a popular backcountry zone, yet it gets used by CSO to help us better understand the high mountain snowpack.

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