Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Snow Pillows and Snow Plates

In 1949, a record-breaking blizzard swept across Wyoming and surrounding states. Snowbanks rose as high as farmhouse roofs, and roads across all three states were blocked for weeks. One survivor described a “tsunami” of snow sweeping across the prairie, and a farmer recalled digging a pig out of a snowbank three months later. (The pig was alive.) The “Blizzard of ‘49” was one of the most intense snowstorms to hit the Intermountain West.

The official record for blizzard snowfall? Twelve inches. Back then, meteorologists used instruments similar to yardsticks to measure snowfall, and strong winds made it difficult to measure snow accurately.

Snow plate after installation
(image credit: Elizabeth Traver)
This fall, researchers installed new equipment to measure snowfall in Wyoming’s Snowy Range, in areas of the mountain where there was no snow measuring equipment. Elizabeth Traver, manager of the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics’ (WyCEHG) Surface and Subsurface Hydrology Lab (SSHL), explained how this new snow measuring equipment would work.
New equipment, which was purchased by WyCEHG through a 5-year grant from the National Science Foundation, consists of lightweight aluminum plates measuring over two meters on each side. Connected to pressure sensors that measure the weight of the snow on the plate, these “snow plates” are sensors that can track snowfall over a given area.
Air and snow temperature sensors
and solar power source
(image credit: Elizabeth Traver)
The plates are an improvement over an earlier method, which used “snow pillows.” Snow pillows are like big water mattresses, about three meters square. They’re filled with biodegradable anti-freeze (the same chemical used to make some brands of ice cream, non-toxic to humans and animals), and connected to similar pressure sensors. The antifreeze cushion helps distribute weight evenly over the pillow’s surface.

The snow plates are much easier to carry and set up – Traver said that she and other researchers would carry folded snow plates “two at a time” up the trail. They’re also less fragile, and require less maintenance. In addition, since no chemicals are needed, this method of testing can be seen as more environmentally safe.

Each location is also equipped with a snow depth sensor, an air temperature probe, and five snow temperature sensors. These sensors are placed fifteen centimeters above the ground and then every thirty after that, so they can take the temperature of the snowpack as a whole, allowing researchers to monitor environmental conditions and predict melting patters. Hydrologists and meteorologists can use the data from the snow plates to predict weather and water flow over time.

The plates are connected to a satellite uplink, and will generate real-time data that can be accessed via web. Because the areas where studies occur are remote, the plates are powered by solar panels. As Traver explained, “The idea is that they will require minimal maintenance. ”

I asked Traver about other maintenance concerns and she said, “Well, you might be interested to know that when I first set up these systems, one of them crashed. So when I went to the field, I found that a bear had destroyed the battery, just ripped it apart. Left some nice paw prints on the snow plate.”

Despite the hazards or difficulties of research in remote places, WyCEHG’s new approach to measuring snow will hopefully help managers and others working to understand Wyoming’s water resources and mountain weather patterns.
Closeup of snow plate surface with bear pawprints
(image credit: Elizabeth Traver)
Posted to the University of Wyoming EPSCoR blog by Jess White.

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