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Earth Science Sustainability and Conservation

Snow Hydrology: why and how do scientists study snow?

What is snow hydrology?

Snow hydrology is the study of snow’s role in the water cycle. Snow hydrologists study snowfall, melting, and everything that happens to snow in between! Many snow hydrologists are interested in the ways snow impacts our water resources. They may use data to make predictions about the water supply.

Why is snow hydrology important?

Snow plays an important role in the water cycle in many parts of the world. For example, in mountainous regions, snow accumulates (builds up) in the mountains all winter, then rapidly melts in the spring. As a result, the amount of water flowing through streams dramatically increases in the spring and early summer. Water from snow melt is used for drinking, household activities, and growing food crops. Many animals also rely on a yearly cycle of snow accumulation and melt. For example, some fish rely on cold water from snowmelt to keep their habitats cool enough during the hot summer.

One of the most important things snow hydrologists study is the impacts of climate change on snow. They seek to understand and predict the ways the amount of snowfall and the timing of snowmelt are changing in different places. This is an important topic to study because snow helps provide water that humans and many ecosystems rely on.

This diagram shows snow’s contributions within the water cycle, via accumulation, movement, and melting.

What do snow hydrologists measure?

Snow hydrologists take lots of measurements. They measure the total amount of snowfall, as well as the density, composition, layering, and temperature of the snowpack. To collect this information, snow hydrologists may perform field research, monitor weather stations, or even use remote sensing (e.g., monitoring an area from an aircraft or drone). Many snow hydrologists are interested in how much water snow will provide once it melts. Because of this, they measure or estimate snow water equivalent (SWE). You can think of SWE as the depth of standing water would be left on the ground if all the snow melted instantaneously. This number can vary a lot. The density of snow has a big impact on the SWE. Estimating SWE accurately is important because it helps us make predictions about our water supply.

A basic method for measuring snow depth

Methods for Snow research:

1.) Field Research

To collect data, snow hydrologists sometimes need to put on skis or snowshoes and go take measurements by hand. Often, snow hydrologists must carry all the equipment they need on their backs or in sleds. They head out to a study area to measure snow depth, dig snow pits to observe layers in the snowpack, collect samples, and more.

2.) Weather Stations

Weather stations are great for taking lots of measurements all winter long. These stations can monitor the total amount of snowfall as well as the density of snow, temperature, wind speed, and more. Weather stations in remote areas are often powered by solar panels. They can repeatedly take measurements throughout the winter without anyone there in-person.

3.) Remote Sensing

Many of the newest methods in snow hydrology fall into the category of remote sensing. Remote sensing is a way of learning about something without making direct contact with it. Remote sensing includes using drones, aircrafts, and satellites to monitor the ground’s surface. Today, snow hydrologists can learn about the location and characteristics of snow with remote sensing. Some scientists are even developing tools for estimating snow water equivalent with remote sensing.

black drone
Drones can be used for remote sensing. Photo by David Bartus on Pexels.com

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References and Further Reading

  1. The US Geological Survey has a great webpage all about some snow hydrologists and what they do! Get to know the scientists behind snowmelt research!
  2. The European Space Agency released this animated map that shows the locations of water stored as snow across the globe!
  3. Read this article from the University of Washington about how students study to become snow hydrologists.
  4. National Weather Service’s webpage with info on snow water equivalent (SWE).
  5. This review article by Anne W. Nolin explains recent advances in remote sensing of snow. The article has sections explaining different parameters related to snow that remote sensing may help measure.
  6. This article from MissoulaAvalanche.org explains SWE and SLR.
  7. This short article from the University of Wyoming gives details about different areas of research within the field of snow hydrology.

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