Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


snow-melt-prospector

From NASA's Airborne Snow Observatory, researchers can view—and measure—the dappled snowpack in the Tuolumne River basin, part of San Francisco's watershed. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF NASA/JPL-CALTECH)

How NASA Hopes to Better Monitor and Control Our Water Supply in the West

• July 16, 2013 • 6:00 AM

From NASA's Airborne Snow Observatory, researchers can view—and measure—the dappled snowpack in the Tuolumne River basin, part of San Francisco's watershed. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF NASA/JPL-CALTECH)

Flying high with the new Airborne Snow Observatory.

One brisk morning this April, Thomas Painter, a snow and water scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, stood on the tarmac at Mammoth Yosemite Airport, in California’s Sierra Nevada, watching as a Twin Otter taxied down the runway.

The plane powered up and took off into a crisp headwind, beelining northwest toward a stretch of snowy peaks that glowed pink in the morning sun. Painter, who is 47, tan, and Coloradan, gazed at the aircraft a moment longer, then turned toward me and flashed a bright smile. “Now it’s time to nerd out,” he said.

The plane carried a laser and a highly sensitive spectrometer, along with two of Painter’s researchers. They would be running flights back and forth over the Tuolumne River basin all morning and, if the weather held, into the afternoon. At the end of the day, they’d have a ton of data to answer some basic questions about the snowpack in the basin, which feeds San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Like, how much water is up there exactly? And when is it coming down?

Without water, you’d have no Silicon Valley, no wine, no Tesla, no Vegas.

This is good stuff to know if you want to water the cities, farms, and fields of the American West. And not just for gardens and golf courses. Without water, you’d have no Silicon Valley, no wine, no Tesla, no Vegas.

The West gets most of its water from moisture captured as snow in its mountains, mainly the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and Wyoming, and the Sierra Nevada in California. Every year the snow melts and swells the rivers, which in turn refill reservoirs big and small that store and distribute water across a vast, overpopulated desert.

Until now, snow has been measured by surveyors on skis and through a system of sensors called snow pillows—flat plates of steel in mountain meadows that weigh the snow as it comes down and send data via satellite to water managers. But these sparsely distributed snow pillows only exist at low elevations, around 7,000 to 8,000 feet, where they are easy to install and maintain. And they tell us little about higher-elevation snowpack, which melts latest in the spring.

“When you think about the size of the Sierra, you’re measuring a football field based on putting a pencil in one place and making a measurement,” said Bruce McGurk, a former water manager for the Hetch Hetchy and a consultant on Painter’s project. “That’s scary. That’s not good statistics.” Every year there’s a lot of head scratching by the folks who open and close the valves on the dams.

The current snow-survey-and-forecast system, in place since the 1960s, is getting harder to rely on, McGurk said. “The temperature patterns are changing. Climate change is having quite an effect on the accuracy of those forecasts. We also see bigger droughts and bigger floods. The record-setting dry season this spring, since January, is an example of how this system keeps changing.”

Painter’s plane, which he calls the “Airborne Snow Observatory,” is equipped with a LIDAR, a thick-beamed laser that rapidly pulses over the snow, pinging back readings that, when compared against baseline data from the pre-snow autumn, give Painter the snow depth, within 10 centimeters of variance. The spectrometer gives him what is called snow albedo, a measure of how reflective the snow is. This will tell him how much of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the snow. The whiter the snow is, the more it reflects that energy. The darker it is, the more it absorbs and the faster it melts. Combine this information with ground measurements of how dense the snow is—how much water it contains—and you can accurately predict what’s in store for spring.

Having that kind of information will help water managers, McGurk said. It will help them hold on to water in droughts and release water in wet periods to prevent floods.

The April flight was an experiment. Painter hopes to start flights over the entire Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains soon—because Mother Nature is starting to act like a crazy aunt. While Painter’s plane was in the air, McGurk was in the mountains, measuring the snow at a place called Gin Flat. What he saw up there was worrisome. “Snow is left in mounds here and there, [but] there’s a lot of bare ground,” he told me. “The birds were singing and the frogs were croaking. This April 1 snow survey is supposed to have a lot of snow, the maximum for the year, and instead it looks like it’s May 1.”

Brian Calvert
Brian Calvert is a journalist based in Southern California. His work on war and its impacts has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and other publications. He has reported extensively from the Middle East and Asia.

More From Brian Calvert

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.