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Snow scientists harness technology for water forecasting

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Lander – Snowpack monitoring and stream flow data were the hot topics on Aug. 27 at the Lander Inn in Lander, as experts explored various data collection techniques throughout the state. Discussions included snow telemetry (SNOTEL) systems, snow courses, airborne snow observation and ground penetrating radar.

“As a University of Wyoming (UW) alumni, I am proud to say that the top published paper thus far on ground penetrating radar (GPR) for snow science is out of the University of Wyoming,” stated Wyoming State Engineer’s Office River Coordinator Matt Hoobler at the Snowpack Monitoring for Streamflow Forecasting and Drought Planning Workshop.

The paper Hoobler referred to was compiled by W. Steven Holbrook, Mathew Provart, Scott Miller and Mine Dogan, who used GPR to explore snow thickness and snow density, which then provided data to determine snow-water equivalent (SWE) in the snowpack.

“UW conducted all of their research by mounting the GPR unit on the front bumper of a snowmobile,” Hoobler noted. “We are talking about a handheld unit that anyone could buy.”

The team compared their findings to snow cores to confirm the accuracy of their readings, concluding that GPR could be a useful tool in gathering snowpack information.

Connecting points

“I do snow surveys, and I ride a snowmobile upwards of 220 miles during five days. That’s 220 miles that could go into the calculation,” Hoobler continued.

Many other forms of snowpack data are collected only at particular points. Information from SNOTEL, for example, is collected only at the site where equipment has been established.

“We have seen that SNOTEL and manual surveys provide point data. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has a great map where we can see where those points exist and gather data, but with GPR, it can be mobile,” he comments.

The radar can also be used to determine conditions, such as how pristine or hard packed the snow is. GPR sends pulses through the ground layer to create images of the surface or snow layers, the top of the subsurface or ground surface underneath the snow, or the radar can image the ground or subsurface itself.

“It was used to detect land mines in Korea and to survey archeological sites in England. It is also used for tree root mapping in people’s yards. It is a very available technology,” Hoobler explains.

Ice data

Ski resorts use a GPR tool to report conditions and determine ticket marketing and open season dates.

“There is a unit available to ski areas that reads the depth of the snow as someone skis down with a device that looks like a vacuum cleaner,” continues Hoobler.

In Antarctica, scientists have mounted GPR technology on snowcats to gather information, as was used in the Moon Regan Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

“I encourage everyone to look at the Moon Regan Trans-Antarctic Expedition,” Hoobler said.

Andrew Regan and Andrew Moon led an expedition across Antarctica and back, using their Winston Wong Bio-Inspired Ice Vehicle, equipped with GPR technology, to survey the terrain ahead of the two six-wheeled mobile laboratories. The GPR tests for ice conditions, crevasses and obstacles before the other expensive equipment is moved over the surface.

“They can cross Antarctica in about 40 days,” Hoobler mentioned. “The British company is mapping ice levels and fresh water supplies on the ice caps.”

Wyoming application

Here in Wyoming, Hoobler hopes the technology will fill in data gaps from other snowpack collecting methods.

“What I’m trying to do is pull together a lot of the reports currently being produced,” Hoobler noted, “and I want to compliment that data, looking at ways that are available to us to compliment it.”

Earlier this year, Governor Matt Mead released the Wyoming Water Strategy, which highlighted the importance of water data collection.

“He identified, in the number one initiative, credible climate, weather and stream flow data,” Hoobler explained.

The water management initiative states, “This initiative will… identify, prioritize and make recommendations for additional data instrumentation, including enhanced monitoring and for interpretation capacity. These help in understanding climate, weather, snowpack, snowmelt and stream flow data.”

Combined methods

“I don’t want to take away from the value of what we see in SNOTEL or the manual soil survey site data samples,” Hoobler commented.

He noted that Mead’s Water Strategy includes increasing the number of climate centers in the state.

“We have 14 right now, but we are interested in increasing that by 26 stations,” Hoobler mentioned. “Those include a lot of various data collection that we would need to also be complimentary to understanding runoff in Wyoming.”

The initiative also supports many other techniques reviewed at the workshop, including traditional snow courses, SNOTEL sites and airborne snow observation, which involves using airplanes to collect snow pack and snow melt data from basins across Wyoming.

“A lot of discussions have been held with our water development office and with members of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to determine what might be the best ways to move forward,” Hoobler said.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at

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