If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

Citizen scientists measuring snow in places scientists can’t


Photo courtesy of Community Snow Observations.

By Elizabeth Kimberly

With the onset of spring in the Cascades, the mountain snowpack begins its annual phase change: dense snow becomes cold, flowing water – sustenance to the watershed.

To better predict the volume and timing of snowmelt, scientists need an accurate yearly record of snow depth in the mountains. On a grander scale, snow depth can help foretell the potential for floods, wildfires and the fate of glaciers, rivers and fish habitat.

But there are gaps in our knowledge of snowpack. Scientists use aircraft or satellite imagery and computer models to estimate snow coverage and depth. Information from snow telemetry stations augments the models and remote data, providing data on depth and the amount of water in the snow (called snow water equivalent). However, there are limits to the accuracy of remote imagery and computer modeling, and telemetry stations are primarily in accessible and gentle terrain and only measure a single location; they can’t capture the variability of snow depth even in the easy-to-reach areas.

A group of researchers saw a potential solution to this problem lurking in the community of people playing and exploring the Cascades in winter and spring. They launched a citizen science project called Community Snow Observations (CSO) to encourage adventurers to collect and submit snow depth data in the remote places that scientists cannot get to. In places like Artist Point, or your favorite scenic viewpoint just off of Highway 542, or the pinnacle where the Coleman Glacier meets the Deming Glacier on Mount Baker, field observations broaden scientists’ data-set, reduce the uncertainties of the computer models, and “ground-truth” the aerial and satellite measurements.

CSO was initially proposed in 2017 by a team of professors and research scientists – Gabriel Wolken from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Anthony Arendt at the University of Washington, and David Hill at Oregon State University. After proving its usefulness for snow science applications and its promise as a citizen science project, NASA fully funded it in 2018. The project is implemented worldwide, but the efforts are primarily focused on the Intermountain West, Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Scandinavia.

While CSO is looking for data from all seasons, longer spring days coupled with the promise of corn skiing and remote summits bring adventure-seekers to regions with little data. To submit a measurement, you only need three things: undisturbed snow, a measuring tool (avalanche probe, yard stick, or tape measure) and access to a smart phone or computer.

Learn more about Community Snow Observations at communitysnowobs.org

When Elizabeth Kimberly isn’t conducting research for her master’s project at WWU, you can find her seeking alpine powder turns, winding through forests on a bicycle, or writing in a notebook and drinking kombucha.