From Backcountry to Backyard: Community Snow Observations Wants Your Snow Depth Measurements

No matter your geographical location, if you have snow in your area, you can contribute to snow and water research.

Citizen Science Salon iconCitizen Science SalonBy Anna FunkJan 30, 2023 7:44 PM
Citizen Scientists on Snowy Mountain - Propagation Labs
Scientists on a snowy mountain. (Credit: Propagation Labs)

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Katreen Wikstrom Jones’ strongest memories from her winters growing up in Stockholm, Sweden are building snow tunnels on her porch. For the past ten years, Wikstrom Jones has been in Alaska, working for the state as a cryosphere hazard scientist. She originally got into snow science because she loves skiing, she says, and today snow is her full time job. 

Wikstrom Jones is a part of the science team for Community Snow Observations. The goal of the citizen science project is to increase our understanding of snow depth distribution by increasing the number of ground observations in data sparse areas. These observations will help validate snow remote sensing data and hydrological models – which ultimately will provide, for example, water resource managers more accurate data to make better estimates of potential water supply that is stored in our mountain snowpacks. Contributing as a citizen scientist is easy: It only requires undisturbed snow, a measuring tool and about one minute of your time!

Take part: Community Snow Observations

Community Snow Observations (CSO) launched in 2017 with a grant from NASA’s Citizen Science for Earth Science program. Early participants formed the mission-critical CSO ambassador team: Hydrologists, avalanche professionals, guides, ski patrollers, educators and even K-12 teachers were key for promoting the project in its early years and contributing the first snow depth observations. It’s since grown into a global citizen science effort with thousands of participants. 

Why snow? Snow is like a water tower, explains Wikstrom Jones. Snow stores water in the mountains, and impacts everyone and everything downstream when it melts. We need snow for drinking water, for irrigation to support agriculture and for keeping ecosystems healthy. Understanding snow patterns across time and space helps experts predict ebbs and flows of these important resources and also to predict hazards like avalanches or floods from snow melt. Snow depth observations from citizen scientists – volunteers of all ages from all over the globe – are tremendously important for making models more accurate, which is increasingly important as our climate changes.

The Community Snow Observations team measures snow water equivalent (SWE) in Turnagain Pass, April 2022. (Credit: Gabe Wolken)

“We’re very passionate about this project,” says Wikstrom Jones, “It’s increasing tremendously this year, we’ve seen a lot of new observations from all over the world. It’s really exciting that [it] keeps growing.”

Snow tech

Researchers like Wikstrom Jones create snow models to answer a core question: How much snow is in the mountains now, that will provide water later? In technical terms, they think of the volume of water stored in snowpacks as snow water equivalent. Estimating SWE requires an understanding of both snow depth and snow density across the landscape and over time. These models are important because researchers use them to predict which sectors in which communities will eventually be affected by the snow. 

Making these models, and especially making them more accurate, requires a lot of data. Scientists have snow records going all the way back to the 1930s that researchers in the past collected from monitoring sites scattered across the country. Since the 1970s, even more data started being collected from snow telemetry sites – an automated weather station that collects meteorological data at frequent increments. And in recent decades, tech like drones, airplanes, helicopters and satellites have started to provide remote sensing data that’s great for mapping out snowpack distribution over a great spatial scale.

A weather station on Valdez Glacier in Alaska. (Credit: DGGS)

From backcountry to backyard

Community Snow Observations launched when researchers realized how useful it would be to have citizen scientists gather on-the-ground observations to compare with the other data they already had about snow. At first, they focused on recruiting backcountry professionals and recreationists who could take measurements from remote, mountainous locations, but they’ve since expanded to invite observations from everyone, anywhere with snow. 

Today, if you see snow, you can participate. You’ll need undisturbed snow, which means no wildlife tracks, footprints, dog prints or disturbances from snow plows or shoveling. Grab a measurement tool: Backcountry fans may already have a tool on hand called a snow probe, which comes in the standard  avalanche safety kit, but any ruler, meter stick, yardstick or even measuring tape will do as long as it’s deep enough to measure the full depth of the snow.

Best practice is to take three measurements of snow depth, within a radius of about a meter, and averaging them to get a single datapoint to submit. This accounts for the natural variability under the snow surface. If there’s any doubt that your measurement tool is reaching all the way to the ground, dig down to check. Finally, submit your snow depth observation to Community Snow Observations using one of their partnering apps! From start to finish, the process only takes a few minutes.

There are a few ways to submit your data, and all of them end up in the same place. Choose whatever’s easiest for you.

  • Download the app Snow Scope from the app store onto your device. Select “snow height” and submit your measurement (in centimeters). This is the best option for anyone submitting a remote observation: You can use the app to log your observation in the moment, which will log your GPS location even if you don’t have cell service. The actual data transfer will happen later when you’re back within service range. 

  • Professionals like to use SnowPilot.org, better on desktops, to submit their observations.

  • In Europe, RegObs is popular, available as an app or website.

  • You can also submit data to the project on CitSci.org.

Snow science is for everyone!

Earlier this month, Community Snow Observations logged their 20,521th observation and had their 3,498th individual user. “That’s really amazing,” says Wikstrom Jones. Although their main focus right now is the U.S., she says, they’ve received observations from Antarctica, Asia and the very southern tip of South America, too.

On the right is a snowpack model using typical Snow Data Assimilation System (SNODAS) data. On the left is a model of the same area using CSO data collected by citizen scientists. It makes a big difference! (Credit: Nina Aragon)

Since broadening the projects’ reach beyond backcountry mountains, the dataset has improved, but so has the community engagement. “It's extremely valuable data for the modeling side of things which helps enhance snow science and helps provide more reliable products to resource managers,” says Wikstrom Jones. “But what we have realized [after] running CSO now for six years is that it's a great learning experience for participants as well.”

“We get a lot of really awesome feedback that kids are really enjoying being out there and recreating and playing in the snow, but then you’re adding that science component that makes it really interesting,” she says. “Our citizen scientists are folks that come from very different backgrounds and have very different interests.”

Want to see their results? Go to MountainSnow.org on your desktop (Wikstrom Jones doesn’t recommend looking at it on mobile) to find a near-real-time model of all the observations that you can play around with. 

“Nobody owns science, and we can all contribute to science,” she says, “and with citizen science, we're really closing that gap between what traditionally was referred to as the public ‘versus’ the scientific community. It's much more blurry than that. Science lives in that fantastic gray zone between the public and academia.”


Follow CSO on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and their website. Reach out at communitysnowobs@gmail.com if you have questions or would like to be connected to your local CSO Ambassador.

Submit a snow depth observation to Community Snow Observations between now and February 15, 2023, and you could win a prize!

Let's start off this year strong and find out how our mountain snowpacks are stacking up! The rules for this contest are easy: We'll select the top 5 winners from the people who submit the most snow height measurements during the time period January 15 - February 15.  Snowpack height measurements need to be at least 100 m in between measurements and taken in undisturbed snow. Observations must be submitted through the Snow Scope app to qualify. Prizes are donated by Backcountry Access and include: Set of BCA radios, BCA avalanche shovel, BCA snow saw, BCA Snow Study Kit and CSO goodies. Prizes ship to U.S. mailing addresses only.

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