NASA Heads To Winter Olympics In Pyeongchang To Observe Snowfall Patterns

A number of scientists from NASA are currently at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, though they’re not necessarily there to watch some of the world’s best athletes compete for gold. Instead, the U.S. space agency is one of 20 organizations from 11 countries that have headed to South Korea to study snowfall patterns, making use of about 70 different instruments for their scientific analysis.

As explained in a report from Newsweek, the project is known as the International Collaborative Experiments for Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (ICE-POP) and is scheduled to run until March 18, which marks the end of the Paralympic Games. ICE-POP’s work in South Korea is a takeoff on similar endeavors at previous Winter Games in Vancouver and Sochi, but the current project, as noted, could be especially challenging to researchers due to the “complicating factor” of the Korean Peninsula and its geographical features.

Regarding NASA’s presence at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Astronomy magazine wrote that the agency is teaming up with researchers from other U.S. organizations and institutions, including the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Colorado State University. NASA will be gathering data from 16 various points near Olympic event venues, then relaying the information to Olympic officials in an attempt to help them predict weather trends.

“The Olympics provide a means to test some of our observation methods and help develop prediction models in a real-world applied environment and enable our observations to be used by the forecasters and Olympic planning folks as well,” said NASA engineer Manuel Vega in a statement.

Of particular interest to NASA is the extremely cold weather in South Korea, which has a higher elevation and gustier mountain winds than what Vega and other researchers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland are used to. Such extremes could also lead to snowstorms unpredictably traveling from one area to another, which is why the space agency wants to study Pyeongchang closely during the Winter Games.

“We are interested in South Korea because we can improve our understanding of the physics of snow in mountainous areas to help improve the accuracy of our observations and models,” explained NASA Marshall Space Flight Center physical scientist Walt Petersen.

Speaking to Newsweek, Petersen added that his team is using instruments that have special cameras capable of capturing snowflakes 400 times per second, and a radar system that could tell them why snow clouds form by “slicing and dicing” through them. Data collected by NASA’s instruments are collected around the clock, then blended with satellite observations, allowing scientists to compare the information from both sources. Newsweek noted that this could assist researchers in properly leveraging satellite data when the ICE-POP project or other endeavors aren’t actively taking place on the ground.

Although NASA’s Winter Olympics observations could be instrumental in coming up with more accurate weather forecasts, Petersen stressed that the agency’s broader goals extend far beyond that. He said that snowfall is a major contributor to the world’s water supply, as snow can accumulate in the winter months, then serve as a “key freshwater resource” once it melts.