Equipped with specialized lasers and GPS technology, scientists are working to address a critical wintertime weather challenge: how to accurately measure the amount of snow on the ground.
Transportation crews, water managers and others who make vital safety decisions need precise measurements of how snow depth varies across wide areas.
But traditional measuring devices such as snow gauges and yardsticks are often inadequate for capturing snow totals that may vary even within a single field or neighborhood.
Now scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., and at other institutions are finding that prototype devices that use light pulses, satellite signals and other technologies offer the potential to almost instantly measure large areas of snow.
In time, such devices might provide a global picture of snow depth.
"We've been measuring rain accurately for centuries, but snow is much harder because of the way it's affected by wind and sun and other factors," says NCAR researcher Ethan Gutmann.
"It looks like new technology, however, will finally give us the ability to say exactly how much snow is on the ground."
NCAR is conducting the effort with several collaborating organizations, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado Boulder.
The work is supported by NCAR's sponsor, the National Science Foundation (NSF).
"Snow represents both a hazard and a water resource in the western states," says Thomas Torgersen, NSF program director for hydrologic sciences. "Both require detailed assessments of snow amounts and depth. This technology will provide new and important guidance."
Emergency managers rely on snowfall measurements when mobilizing snow plows or deciding whether to shut down highways and airports during major storms.
They also use snow totals when determining whether a region qualifies for disaster assistance.
In mountainous areas, officials need accurate reports of snowpack depth to assess the threat of avalanches or floods, and to anticipate the amount of water available from spring and summer runoff.
But traditional approaches to measuring snow can greatly underreport or overreport snow totals, especially in severe conditions.
Snow gauges may miss almost a third of the snow in a windy storm, even when they are protected by specialized fencing designed to cut down on the wind's effects.
Snow probes or yardsticks can reveal snow depth within limited areas. But such tools require numerous in-person measurements at different locations, a method that may not keep up with totals during heavy snowfalls.
Weather experts also sometimes monitor the amount of snow that collects on flat, white pieces of wood known as snow boards, but this is a time-intensive approach that requires people to check the boards and clear them off every few hours.
The nation's two largest volunteer efforts--the National Weather Service's Cooperative Observer Program, and the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS)--each involve thousands of participants nationwide using snow boards, but their reports are usually filed just once a day.
More recently, ultrasonic devices have been deployed in some of the world's most wintry regions.
Much like radar, these devices measure the length of time needed for a pulse of ultrasonic energy to bounce off the surface of the snow and return to the transmitter.
However, the signal may be affected by shifting atmospheric conditions, including temperature, humidity and winds.
The specialized laser instruments under development at NCAR can correct for such problems.
Once set up at a location, they can automatically measure snow depth across large areas. Unlike ultrasonic instruments, lasers rely on light pulses that are not affected by atmospheric conditions.
New tests by Gutmann indicate that a laser instrument installed high above treeline in the Rocky Mountains west of Boulder can measure 10 feet or more of snow with an accuracy as fine as half an inch or better.
In a little more than an hour, the instrument measures snow at more than 1,000 points across an area almost the size of a football field to produce a three-dimensional image of the snowpack and its variations in depth.
Gutmann's next step will be to build and test a laser instrument that can measure snow over several square miles. Tracking such a large area would require a new instrument capable of taking more than 12,000 measurements per second.
"If we're successful, these types of instruments will reveal a continually-updated picture of snow across an entire basin," he says.
One limitation for the lasers, however, is that light pulses cannot penetrate through objects such as trees and buildings.
This could require development of networks of low-cost laser installations that would each record snow depths within a confined area.
Alternatively, future satellites equipped with such lasers might be capable of mapping the entire world from above.
Gutmann and Kristine Larson, a scientist at the University of Colorado, are also exploring how to use GPS sensors for snowfall measurements.
GPS sensors record satellite signals that reach them directly and signals that bounce off the ground.
When there is snow on the ground, the GPS signal bounces off the snow with a different frequency than when it bounces off bare soil, enabling scientists to determine how high the surface of the snow is above the ground.
Such units could be a cost-effective way of measuring snow totals; meteorologists could tap into the existing global network of ground-based GPS receivers.
However, researchers are seeking to fully understand how the density of the snow and the roughness of its surface alter GPS signals.
"Our hope is to develop a set of high-tech tools that will enable officials to continually monitor snow depth, even during an intense storm," Larson says.
"While we still have our work cut out for us, the technology is very promising."Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas | EurekAlert!
Northern oceans pumped CO2 into the atmosphere
27.03.2017 | CAGE - Center for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Climate and Environment
Weather extremes: Humans likely influence giant airstreams
27.03.2017 | Potsdam-Institut für Klimafolgenforschung
Astronomers from Bonn and Tautenburg in Thuringia (Germany) used the 100-m radio telescope at Effelsberg to observe several galaxy clusters. At the edges of these large accumulations of dark matter, stellar systems (galaxies), hot gas, and charged particles, they found magnetic fields that are exceptionally ordered over distances of many million light years. This makes them the most extended magnetic fields in the universe known so far.
The results will be published on March 22 in the journal „Astronomy & Astrophysics“.
Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe. With a typical extent of about 10 million light years, i.e. 100 times the...
Researchers at the Goethe University Frankfurt, together with partners from the University of Tübingen in Germany and Queen Mary University as well as Francis Crick Institute from London (UK) have developed a novel technology to decipher the secret ubiquitin code.
Ubiquitin is a small protein that can be linked to other cellular proteins, thereby controlling and modulating their functions. The attachment occurs in many...
In the eternal search for next generation high-efficiency solar cells and LEDs, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and their partners are creating...
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are less stable. Now researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have, for the first time ever, produced a composite material combining silicon nanosheets and a polymer that is both UV-resistant and easy to process. This brings the scientists a significant step closer to industrial applications like flexible displays and photosensors.
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are...
Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to simulate these confined natural conditions in artificial vesicles for the first time. As reported in the academic journal Small, the results are offering better insight into the development of nanoreactors and artificial organelles.
Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to...
20.03.2017 | Event News
14.03.2017 | Event News
07.03.2017 | Event News
27.03.2017 | Earth Sciences
27.03.2017 | Life Sciences
27.03.2017 | Life Sciences