Locals learn snow science during Marble class
Walk a few feet. Determine the undisturbed area to test. Push a snow tube into the snow to get a core sample, record the data and repeat.
For over 80 years, researchers across the West have followed a more scientific version of these instructions to collect snowpack data in a specific area.
On Sunday, a group of roughly a dozen locals took part in this snow science method as well, collecting core samples and learning about how snowpack contributes to watersheds during a “field trip for adults” in the Marble area.
Led annually by the Roaring Fork Conservancy and United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service officials for the past six years, the daylong, hands-on snow science education course has aimed to help locals see snow as integral to our ecosystems year-round, not just as a recreational benefit in the winter, according to Megan Dean, director of education for Roaring Fork Conservancy.
“The snow we play on in the winter is the water that eventually helps grow our food that we eat every day,” Dean said. “In a way, the water comes full circle.”
As the group sipped coffee and soup in The Marble Hub on Sunday, Dean further explained this full-circle effect, noting that 80% of our water comes from snow.
Specifically, Dean said the Roaring Fork watershed contributes about 11% of the water that goes into the Colorado water basin, mostly because the valley’s mountains capture and hold a great deal of water via snow.
“Our snow really is what feeds and creates our rivers and our valley,” Dean said to the group Sunday.
After Dean touched on geographic climate trends and key snow science definitions — like the snow water equivalent, which is the actual amount of water in a given volume of snow — soil conservationist Derrick Wyle jumped in to talk snowpack data.
According to Wyle, who works with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, snowpack, precipitation, temperature and other climatic conditions are collected consistently throughout the winter season at NRCS SNOTEL sites.
These snow telemetry stations scattered in remote, high-elevation locations across the West consist of various devices and sensors that collect data and transmit it to a central database, where it is used for water supply forecasting, maps and reports, according to the NRCS website.
So far this year, Wyle said historic and current data for the Colorado water basin show snowpack is about average for this time of year, with a “coin flip chance” of being above or below average for the whole season.
But Wyle emphasized that these numbers and predictions could fluctuate as the season goes on, and that the peak snowpack numbers are what will affect watersheds most.
“Really, all we care about is peak snowpack,” Wyle said, noting that the typical peak snowpack is in early April and that there’s “a whole lot of winter left.”
Although there are over 800 SNOTEL stations across the West, Wyle said he and his colleagues still collect snowpack data manually at a handful of designated “snow courses” once a month.
During the second half of the Sunday field trip on McClure Pass, Wyle and Dean showed the group both how to look at snow depth, density and the snow water equivalent manually using a snow tube and by digging a snow pit, and how the McClure Pass SNOTEL station works to collect the same data on its own.
From small measurements to big picture graphs and newer technology to traditional scientific methods, Wyle and Dean aimed to give the group a snow science crash course and to help put the snowpack numbers they may hear in passing or see online into perspective.
Wyle said he feels it’s important for locals to understand how snowpack data is collected and what it means in a larger watershed context as snow melts to runoff and fuels the state’s rivers, streams and reservoirs.
But although Wyle and Dean only host the adult field trip once a winter, Dean said she hopes to continue working with Wyle to provide snow science education to adults interested in learning, potentially bringing courses to the valley’s ski areas and expanding them to reach more people.
“Snow is the lifeblood of our rivers and it’s important to understand the science behind why we need healthy snow,” Dean said. “The overall message is the more snow we have, the healthier our valley is going to be.”
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