Laser technology is being used to more accurately measure mountain snowpack — crucial information for farmers and water managers in drought-stricken areas like the Colorado River Basin.
From an National Public Radio Weekend Edition interview with Shannon Bond and Stephanie Maltarich.
SHANNON BOND, HOST:
Let’s escape now to Colorado, where some mountains are still covered with snow. Scientists there have been using lasers aimed from airplanes to assess how much water is in that snow. It’s crucial information for the drought-stricken Colorado River Basin. Stephanie Maltarich reports from high in the rocky mountains.
STEPHANIE MALTARICH, BYLINE: This spring, in an alpine basin at 10,000 feet above sea level in Colorado’s Elk Mountains, Jeff Deems is skiing across the blindingly white landscape, looking for a place where he can dig a hole in the snow. When he finds the perfect spot, he clicks out of his skis, unzips his backpack and catches his breath in the thin air. Deems co-founded a company called Airborne Snow Observatories. They fly planes over mountains and shoot lasers at the ground when it’s covered in snow. It’s called lidar, and Deems’ company is the first to use it to measure mountain snowpack on a large scale.
JEFF DEEMS: What we’re really interested in, though, is snow-water equivalent – that is, the amount of water you would actually have if you melted the snowpack down.
MALTARICH: That information is crucial for farmers, hydroelectric dam operators and anyone who drinks water, especially here at the top of the Colorado River Basin, where a drought has shrunk America’s two largest reservoirs to their lowest levels ever. Since the late 1970s, scientists and water managers have relied on little boxes full of panels and sensors located throughout the mountains, called SNOTEL sites, to get data. They measure snowfall hourly during the winter. While SNOTEL sites remain an important tool, they only tell part of the whole story.
DEEMS: They’re measuring continuously, but only at one location.
MALTARICH: The locations are only about nine square feet, so water managers have to make educated guesses about how much snow covers an entire watershed. Deems says lidar makes it so scientists don’t have to guess. The lasers are 98% accurate and provide a full accounting of water in high alpine environments. As climate change makes snowfall less certain, it’s essential to understand the big picture view rather than a single point.
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