NASA study based in Colorado Springs could change how world sees snow

A P-3C Orion assigned to Patrol Squadron 46 sits on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Oak Harbor, Wash., Jan. 30, 2017.


By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: February 18, 2017

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — A Navy plane making frequent flights over Colorado's western mountains is part of a big NASA push to build a satellite that can measure the moisture in snowpack.

In addition to the plane, the space agency is working with more than 100 scientists and technicians on the ground to see if sensors aboard the Lockheed P-3 Orion can reliably determine the depth of snow blanketing the Rockies this winter and how much water that snow contains.

"Snow is really critical to society," said NASA scientist Edward Kim during a news conference at Peterson Air Force base where the effort is centered.

The agency has long dreamed of examining snow from space in a new way. Satellites now can show when snow falls and easily record the extent of snow across the globe. But what's behind the white remains a mystery, Kim said.

Determining how much snow there is and how much river water it will make still requires sweat, 19th Century tools and guesswork, said Karl Wetlaufer with the federal Department of Agriculture.

At 1,200 sites across the West, scientists hike into the mountains and use a hand-powered drill to take core samples of snow. Weighing the snow reveals how much water it holds.

There are about 800 automated snow-sensing sites, but the technology of those isn't much different. And measuring snow at a total 2,000 sites in millions of acres of high-country leaves a lot to chance.

"We really need a global picture," Kim said.

But getting a global picture of snowfall from space means getting instruments that will work on Earth first. That's where the Navy comes in. The Naval Research laboratory contributed a stripped-down P-3 for the effort to haul NASA gear above the mountains.

With its torpedoes and sonar gear removed, the four-engined P-3, used since the 1960s as the Navy's primary aircraft for hunting submarines, is especially suited for the snowy job.

"It has long endurance and long range," said pilot Lt. Denise Miller. "We can fly it anywhere on the planet."

Miller said the crew plans a string of missions as long as 8 hours above the Western Slope.

NASA scientists aboard will monitor a suite of instruments that developers hope will measure the snow, including microwave radar, infrared sensors and a laser scanner. Frank McCormick, a research program manager with the U.S. Forest Service, said the crew on the airplane has the easy job.

His agency is coordinating ground teams to go measure the snow the old-fashioned way in the same spots spied by the P-3's instruments. It's a snow-shoeing form of quality control.

"Ultimately, it's that information that will be tied to what the instruments being flown are telling us," McCormick said.

It's the first stage of a 5-year NASA effort dubbed SnowEx. The agency hopes to focus in on successful methods this year, confirm those methods with math next year, and further develop them through 2022.

The P-3 will fly from Colorado Springs for the next month. Petty Officer 1st Class Rod Hynes said the sailors are pretty excited about the mission, even if the water involved is frozen.

"It's totally different," he said.

If the snow flying missions work, it could be a big deal from Colorado Springs to California. McCormick said 80 percent of the water used in the West to sustain human life and irrigate crops starts as mountain snowfall.

By knowing how much water is locked atop the peaks, water managers can better ration what has been a tight supply.

"Our knowledge of snow becomes increasingly important as the population of the West and the world grows," Wetlaufer said.


©2017 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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