Photo courtesy of David Hill

Citizen scientists Fiona, Josie and Tessa Hill use a ski pole with a tape measure attached to it to measure snow depth in Mazama last week. Their findings are posted on a map on the Community Snow Observations project website.

NASA project encourages ‘citizen scientists’ to help track snow depth

By Ann McCreary

Have you ever wanted to be a scientist conducting research in the field? If so, NASA, the nation’s space agency, wants you.

Skiers, snowshoers, snowmobilers — anyone who likes playing outdoors on snow — can become scientists for NASA under a new project that recruits citizens to gather information on snow depth.

You just need a measuring stick and a smartphone with an app to become part of NASA’s “Community Snow Observations” project, said David Hill, an Oregon State University professor of civil and environmental engineering and one of the scientists leading the project.

Hill and his family have been visiting the Methow Valley each winter for the past five years to cross-country ski, and he sees the valley as a potential source of new citizen scientists. Hill wants to tap into the population of outdoor enthusiasts in the Methow Valley to assist in the NASA research, conducted as part of the agency’s earth sciences division.

“Our goal is to leverage the fact that people are out in the backcountry to help us build better models” of snowpack measurements, Hill said.

Accurate snowpack measurements are linked to understanding several things that are important to people living in the Northwest, Hill said. Snowpack measurements provide information for avalanche and flood predictions, and help water resource managers forecast how much water will be available from mountain snowpack for reservoirs and river systems, Hill said.

“A better job of predicting how much snow is out there is important for a better understanding of spring runoff,” Hill said. Runoff from snowmelt has important impacts on agriculture, fish, wildlife and recreation throughout the Northwest.

Most snowpack measurements are gathered by snow telemetry (SNOTEL) stations operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Snowpack measurements help water managers estimate how much water is contained in snow cover. The automated SNOTEL stations are few and far between, are expensive to install and maintain, and are usually located at high elevations, Hill said.

More-accurate readings

Using citizens to augment the SNOTEL information will provide a much more-accurate reading of snowpack, he said. “The great thing about people making measurements is people travel to different areas and different elevations. Having that elevation spread is very desirable,” Hill said.

The work of collecting the snowpack data is easy, Hill said. During his family’s visit last week to the Methow Valley, Hill’s three daughters, ages 7, 10 and 12, took their own measurements in a field in Mazama.

A project website, communitysnowobs.org, provides instructions for people who want to become involved. Measuring devices can be as simple as a yardstick, or as sophisticated as a collapsible avalanche probe, which is carried by many backcountry travelers and has measurement markings.

A tutorial on the website explains how to take several measurements and average the results. The smartphone app records the location and time of the measurement and uploads the information.

“You take a measurement, type it into your app, and 60 seconds later it’s on the map” on the project website that shows measurements taken throughout the region, Hill said. The map includes the measurement taken by Hill’s daughters last week.

“The measurements are a ground truth, they are the reality,” Hill said. “One of the cool things about the project is that it’s all up to the people. We want people to be interested in water, have a vested interested in it. You turn on the tap and it’s not just magic.”

The snowpack project began last winter in Alaska, where citizen scientists took more than 600 measurements, Hill said. The project is anticipated to last several years and is expanding into Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Initial findings from the information collected in Alaska have shown that the citizen scientists’ information has made snowpack information far more accurate, Hill said.

“We ultimately would like this to be a sustainable thing, and have the public interested in what’s going on,” he said.

NASA involves citizen scientists in helping gather information for a wide range of research, including collecting information for earth-based projects on clouds, mosquitoes and soil moisture, and space-based research on planets, solar systems and the universe.