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NASA SnowEx: Advancing Snow Science Through Data-Driven Research

By Aanika Tipirneni and Kimberly Mann Bruch, San Diego SDSC Communications


Jesslyn Di Fiori and Alan Bourgeois of the National Snow and Ice Data Center Distributed Active Archive Center (NSIDC DAAC) have recently been working with NASA SnowEx’s 2023 Tundra and Boreal Forest campaign in Fairbanks, Alaska.


The campaign team was focused on analyzing best uses for remote sensing technologies in field work settings involving tundra and boreal forests. Researchers acquired data from October 2022 through October 2023 and utilized tools including airborne radars, radiometers, LiDAR (A Light Detection and Ranging tool) and stereophotogrammetry observations.


“The NSIDC DAAC was really excited to participate in the SnowEx campaign in Fairbanks,” said Di Fiori, who is a technical writer at NSIDC DAAC. “The data collected during this campaign will eventually be published by NSIDC. Working with the SnowEx scientists in person was a crash course in fieldwork-based snow science, and will ideally make the data publication process more efficient.”


What is the History of SnowEx and What is Involved with a Campaign?

SnowEx allows for the documentation of water availability in a different region each year through airborne measurements that are verified by trusted fieldwork. Using this knowledge, SnowEx hopes to more accurately observe snow and its changes throughout the season. Future work would include a NASA-led snow space mission to measure the total amount of snow on planet Earth. The first SnowEx campaign began in 2017 to evaluate different snow remote sensing techniques, and more campaigns occurred in 2020 and 2021.


SnowEx works by dividing the total Earth’s snow into seven different subtypes: forest snow, mountain snow, tundra snow, prairie snow, maritime snow, snow surface energetics, and wet snow. By dividing the snow into subsections, SnowEx is able to tailor the appropriate tool to each type of snow and their influencing factors such as wind, snow depth, perception, density, and snow layers. These different types of snow represent seven key knowledge gaps in the understanding of seasonal terrestrial snow water equivalent (SWE) remote sensing techniques.


Why Snow?

Over one billion people on Earth depend on seasonal snow for their water supply. Snow is also crucial for both the ecosystem's health and climate dynamics. In mountainous regions, it acts as a natural insulator, protecting plants and wildlife from extreme cold. During the melting season, snow acts as a natural freshwater reservoir, which gradually releases water. Additionally, the presence or absence of snow cover significantly impacts climate patterns, as its reflective nature sends sunlight back into space and cools the planet. Due to the impacts of climate change, snow cover is beginning to decrease, making it even more important to document how much is left. However, measuring snow is easier said than done.


In the Fairbanks SnowEx campaign, researchers prioritized collecting measurements from tundra and boreal forest environments. They used a combination of satellite data and fieldwork to obtain the most accurate readings.


“Field work was needed to verify the satellite readings since discrepancies often occur and the team created new algorithms to detect snow or use a better combination of tools to get more accurate readings,” said Bourgeois, who is an NSIDC Operations Data Systems Specialist. “While our role with the project is to collect and store the data, we had a chance to learn more about the on-the-ground field work during this activity, which allowed us to better understand the project needs.”


Diving into Snow Science

In Fairbanks, Bourgeois and Di Fiori had two main duties, to transcribe and backup the data. However, they didn’t just sit behind a computer, Bourgeois and Di Fiori were invited to participate with the snow scientists while they conducted their research. The team dug snow pits and used an array of sensors and tools to take/record measurements. Every day, they recorded aspects like depth, snow water equivalent, density, wetness, grain size, stratigraphy and temperatures at different depths—as well as weather conditions and the types of vegetation beneath the snowpack.


“SnowEx stands as a testament to the transformative potential of data to better understand our world and the impacts of climate change,” said Ashley Atkins, West Hub Executive Director. “The West Hub is thrilled to feature the role that Bourgeois and Di Fiori had in advancing this data-intensive science in the region.”


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