The Hippo


May 26, 2020








Snow science
New equipment tracks snowpack effects

By Ryan Lessard

 With the installation of new outdoor snow scale technology developed in New Hampshire, researchers will begin to track snowpack measured by water density in order to shed light on how climate change affects snowpack, and subsequently how snowpack affects ecosystems, agriculture and the state’s tourist economy.

New scales
Traditional methods of measuring snowpack in units of SWE (snow water equivalent) include either taking tube samples and melting them down to measure inches of snow, or using outdoors measuring devices that involve balloons filled with antifreeze.
What the University of New Hampshire is using is a force-sensing scale — a roughly three-foot by three-foot metal triangle connected to a radio antenna and a solar panel. Based on the weight, the amount of snow water equivalent can be calculated. 
Elizabeth Burakowski, research assistant professor at UNH, said one scale has been installed so far at the Kingman Research Farm in Madbury, part of the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station.
The scale takes regular readings every hour and beams them to Burakowski’s computer, she said.
“We also take manual samples and we compare them to the snow scale,” she said.
Burakowski said being able to get data collected from such regular intervals and over a long period of time — possibly spanning decades — New Hampshire will begin to have a clear, high-resolution picture of snowpack behavior in the state. 
“The snow records in northeastern United States, especially longer-term records, are fairly sparse. Quality is a big issue with our snow records,” Burakowski said.
The scales were developed by 2KR Systems in Rochester. The company president, Chris Dundorf, said the scales are easy to install and are made from their own components. 
“Some of the technology we’re using now is a rooftop snow load measurement system,” Dundorf said.
The snow scales for research purposes and the rooftop product known as SnowSentry (meant to warn building managers of too much snow piling up on rooftops and where) are similar in design but meet very different market demands.
He hopes the kind of scale he installed for UNH will replace the many antifreeze pillows currently in service around the country, such as out west in hundreds of SnoTel network monitoring sites.
He said the old devices can get torn into by animals or tree branches and cause antifreeze to leak, rendering the device useless and contaminating the environment.
In the meantime, he plans to install a second snow scale at UNH, near the first one, which will feature some upgrades that make installation easier and readings more accurate.
The two scales will deliver data that researchers will be able to compare. 
The research
Once researchers have the high-resolution and long-term data they hope to get from this project, it can be used to answer certain questions about how snowpack patterns interact with other ecological or agricultural effects.
“If we can install this technology and have it sit there for decades, that will give us a much better idea of how our snowpacks are responding to warmer temperatures and changes in climate,” Burakowski said.
Some of those changes may have already begun, as temperatures have already risen four degrees since the 1970s. It’s possible climate change could contribute to less snow cover, more rain and more frequent mid-winter thaws.
At this early stage, scientists aren’t sure what the long-term impacts of this on the state’s forests or farms could be.
Broadly, it could mean drier weather.
“If we have winters with little to no snow pack and a commensurate decrease in precipitation, that could spell … the conditions that could lead to prolonged drought in summer,” Burakowski said.
But having denser, wetter snowpack could also cause soil to freeze more often, rather than provide insulation for the soil like dry soft powder offers. This might have an effect on the soil’s microbial life and if it’s affected, it might impact its role in decomposition and recycling nutrients. 
And what type of snow cover and how much New Hampshire gets can have some immediate impacts on the local economy as ski areas rely on abundant powder to attract tourists.
“For me, losing snowpack is a big deal. And it’s something that really upsets me when I think about the possibility of having a winter in the future without any snow,” Burakowski said.
She thinks in just 30 or 40 years we could experience the first snowless winter in the state. 

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