For three weeks in February, NASA will conduct flyovers in the Silverton area to learn more about aerial snow observation techniques.
And with its sundry terrain, where better to study snow than in the San Juan Mountains?
Launching a five-year project called SnowEx, NASA will collect data in Grand Mesa, east of Grand Junction, as well as at the Center of Snow and Avalanche Studies’ Senator Beck Basin, just north of Red Mountain Pass. NASA will use the research to develop a multisensor satellite to study snow across the globe.
Snow has societal impacts throughout the world relating to weather and climate, natural hazards, and in areas like Colorado’s Western Slope, snow translates to water for drinking, agriculture and industry.
“It’s a critical aspect of the water cycle, and there’s no comprehensive way to observe that globally at the moment,” said Ed Kim, a physical scientist for NASA. “How much snow is there, where is it, how quickly will it melt? Those are what we’re developing techniques for.”
NASA sought study areas with particular conditions and snow types, as well as examples of what makes snow observations challenging.
“Grand Mesa is flat and has varying degrees of forest cover,” said Jeff Derry, director of CSAS. “Then they fly to our complex terrain, the basin, where there are rocks, trees and steep slopes.”
CSAS has hosted snow research for 10 years for the Colorado Dust-on Snow program, which is primarily conducted out of the 12,000-foot Senator Beck Basin study area in the Uncompahgre National Forest.
About 30 scientists visited the study sites in early fall to do prep work before snow was on the ground. NASA installed four scientific weather stations at different points on the mesa.
Instruments too difficult to move around will take measurements from an observation site near the Forest Service’s Jumbo Campground.
A team of about 40 or 50 will return in February to study Grand Mesa by snowmobile, while a smaller group of about 15 will take measurements in the basin, traveling primarily by skis to reduce avalanche hazards.
Four aircraft are confirmed for the mission, and there may be more. Locals can expect to see low-flying aircraft – about 1,000 feet off the ground – in Grand Mesa, and aircraft at slightly higher altitudes in the basin.
Whether NASA will continue studying in Southwest Colorado or elsewhere for the remainder of the project is undecided.
“It’s been 14 years since the snow research community has conducted a campaign like this. We’ll have people from Canada, Europe, the whole international snow research community,” Kim said. “Colorado is a fantastic outdoor laboratory for doing this kind of work in the hope of figuring out how much snow is out there. It’s amazing in this day and age that we don’t already have that technology.”