Plane overhead snowpack. NASA is doing airborne research on snowpacks and water sources.

NASA’s SnowEx Project Examines Water Levels In Snow Regions

Science may be on the verge of discovering precise ways to predict the world’s water levels as NASA begins a multi-year campaign called SnowEX.

Photo of NASA's lead aircraft integration engineer Eugenia De Marco conducting Snow-Ex research.
NASA’s lead aircraft integration engineer Eugenia De Marco conducting research for Snow-Ex. [Image by Brennan Linsley/AP Images]

A recent report from NASA entitled “Got Snow” makes the case for why snow, in particular, the water within the snow, is so critical for maintaining the earth’s resources. Over a billion people worldwide rely on snow as their primary source of water. Thus, when snow amounts fail to reach forecasts, the ramifications can be devastating.

In the last fifty years, a million square miles of snow cover has been erased from the Northern Hemisphere. California, a state where snowmelt is critical to sustaining a 15-billion-dollar agricultural industry, has dealt with drought conditions that lasted for years. The devastation of water restrictions in California became exacerbated by the lack of reliability in forecasting water level amounts.

To properly predict snow water levels, scientists need to measure the total square miles and the depth of snow. Also important to measure is the length of time the snow stays on the ground, the variation and the quality of the snow. That is where SnowEx comes in.

SnowEx, according to NASA, will use cutting-edge remote sensing techniques to determine the amount of water found in snow-covered regions. The research will measure the distribution of snow-water equivalent (SWE), which is the amount of water that can be found in a snow pack.

In previous research conducted, there have been challenges in measuring SWE. For one, in forested regions, it can be difficult to accurately calculate SWE. The sheer size of the area that needs to be measured for snow cover is so vast that it isn’t feasible to rely on ground-only research methods. As a result, SnowEx is using remote sensing technology. One method of remote sensing is Light Detection and Ranging or LiDAR for short. However, what scientist have found is that there isn’t one type of sensor technology currently in use that can provide the accurate data on SWE needed, which is why NASA’s SnowEx will combine as many sensors as they can, including active and passive microwaves, imaging spectrometers, and infrared.

Armed with a variety of sensing techniques, the SnowEx team is going airborne with assistance from the US Navy’s Research Laboratory P-3 Orion aircraft, which will enable travel to forested regions.

In addition to the airborne research, hundreds of people from NASA’s SnowEx team are on the ground right now in snow packed Grand Mesa, Colorado.

Image shows a Navy P-3 Orion aircraft on airfield at Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Navy P-3 Orion aircraft used for NASA Snow-Ex project on an airfield in Colorado Springs, Colorado. [Image by Brennan Linsley/AP Images]

As the largest flat-topped mountain in the world, Grand Mesa is often a site where research is conducted to study issues ranging from cold-water biodiversity to air pollution. In an interview with, NASA SnowEx Project Scientist Ed Kim noted that Grand Mesa presented a “Goldilocks story” where there was an ideal amount of trees to present a versatile site needed for research.

Last Saturday around 40 great snow scientist dug a 25 meter (82 feet) long snow pit. This pit will provide data about changes in seasonal snow and how we as humans are effected by it. There were over a dozen different instruments used which measured a plethora of valuable material. #Snowex #SnowexSuperPitSaturday #NASA #ILoveSnow

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The research being conducted at Grand Mesa can provide invaluable insight into a multitude of services that rely on water. According to Kelly Elder (U.S. Forest Service), “Right now we have a lot of uncertainty in our runoff forecast that has implications, of course the economy, when and where to plant crops.”

The long-term goal of projects such as NASA’s SnowEx is to create robust satellite technology that will enable smarter measuring of the amount of water contained in snow packed areas. With this knowledge, the cycles of flooding, drought, and famine that have marked much of human history can be anticipated and possibly avoided.

[Featured Image by Haven Daley/AP Images]