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Measuring The Mountain Snowpack From Space

The old fashioned, but reliable way of forecasting water supply in the West is to strap on snow shoes and stick a pipe into the mountain snowpack. 

Now a researcher at Boise State University is investigating whether a satellite could do the job better.   Correspondent Tom Banse reports.

 Snow Survey
Boise State University geophysicist Hans-Peter Marshall (right) tests “snow radar” in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

Irrigators, drinking water utilities, dam operators, and fish biologists are just some of the folks who keep close tabs on the mountain snowpack. 

On a clear day, satellite pictures can show you snow covered areas.  But the pictures don’t reveal snow depth or water content — key facts for predicting stream flows. 

In the geosciences department at Boise State University, Hans-Peter Marshall is experimenting with what you might call airborne or space-based “snow radar.”

Hans-Peter Marshall: “You measure a reflection from the surface of the snow and then a reflection from the ground.  You time the amount of time it takes that signal to go through.  It’s on the order of nanoseconds.  It’s a very short signal.  But from that you can estimate the amount of water that snowpack represents.”

Marshall says because of climate change, it’s important to get a more accurate and more detailed view of the snowpack.

Since 2003, Marshall has cross checked satellite measurements with ground based surveys.  He says the eye in the sky shows promise, but will take years more to finesse. 

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