The primary tool currently in use to measure snowpack in the Western United States is SNOTEL. We all rely on the SNOTEL website to see what’s happening during winter in the Rockies. But, you may be surprised to learn that the SNOTEL (SNOw TELemetry) has been missing the mark in its automated reading of snow depth in the Western US. How do we know that? Because, there is a new tool – actually an old one, repurposed – that could enhance greatly the accuracy of the 732 SNOTEL stations currently being used for the critical purpose of measuring snowpack in the mountains to help water managers forecast the potential runoff.
The solo SNOTEL system was as good as it got for 50 years when it came to measuring snow in the mountains. The system of sensors that measure snow depth and the amount of water contained in the snow was put into use back in the 1970s. It has not been updated since then, although some stations were added in the 1980s. SNOTEL measures two primary parameters, snow depth and density. Density tells us how much water is in the snow. It does this by sensing the weight of the snow on something called a snow pillow. The pillow is about eight feet square and as the snow builds up, it gets weighed. That number and the depth at the station are reported to the system as what we call the snowpack.
SNOTEL actually functions pretty well up to a point. The biggest drawback with it is the minuscule sampling of a vast area of snow production. The 732 stations are spread out through the mountain snow regions of all the Western states, including Alaska. That area is 1.76 million square miles, of which about a third is mountainous and has snow pack. That means there is a SNOTEL station for every 800 square miles of mountain terrain. Some of the stations are not as accurate as they need to be because of location. Some terrain, where extraordinary snow accumulation occurs, such as the bottom of an avalanche chute, never get measured because they are below the altitude level where SNOTEL stations are located. The avalanche-prone San Juans may have much more snow than we ever knew.
Given the increasingly critical nature of determining even short term snow inventories, people like John Lhotak, an operations hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, told a press meeting, “SNOTEL is the best network we have, but there are definitely shortcomings.”
Enter LIDAR. LIDAR is one of those pseudo-acronym things that the lab guys and bureaucrats love. This one stands for Light Detection and Ranging.
Quite simply, if you flew over the mountains without snow on them and determined the height (compared to sea level), and then flew over and scanned them when the snow is in place, you would simply deduct the original snow-less height from the snow packed image and “voila!!!” you get the snow depth of the whole mountain almost to within centimeters.
Sounds simple enough, but the data crunching is mind numbing. All the data points from the ground-only image must be overlaid with the image taken with snow on the ground. The measurement points are chosen and then comes all the subtraction and interpolation. The people like Jeffrey Deems at the National Snow and Ice Center and Sam Tyler at Utah State University (and their teams) have developed the computer tools to breakdown the gigabytes of data collected to simple usable terms.
The whole concept was first tested in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains eight years ago. The dry model of the mountains was made by flying at 20,000 feet in a straight back-and-forth pattern. After some storms passed the location, the team went back and flew the same pattern at the same altitude. The resulting 3D images were a precise measurement of the snow on the ground. Tyler’s team also did a test of the system near Logan, Utah, at about 8,000 feet…
The Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) folks tell us, “We see it as moving from a sparse-point base network (with SNOTEL) to a system that can map the entire snow pack in a river basin,” Jeffrey Deems said, “It is really an enabling technology.”
In 2013 the ASO tested the system on selected sections of the Front Range, Gunnison Basin, Rio Grande Basin, and Uncompahgre watershed. Deems said, regarding the SNOTEL numbers, “We were missing a lot of the picture. We need to fix that.”
What the tests revealed was that in the Rio Grande Basin, for example, the forecasts were way off, reporting as much as 50% less snow and water than what was actually on the ground. That makes accurate forecasts and water use management for that basin impossible…
But the bean counters aren’t so sure. First of all, flying several thousand miles back and forth over the Colorado peaks costs a lot of money. The tab for flying for the new imagery on a regular basis could cost $400,000 a year or more, according to Frank Kugel, director of the Southwest Water Conservation District. Is the return on investment really there?
Also, everyone in the water biz seems to agree that we will still need SNOTEL. It is currently the only tool for proofing the accuracy of the LIDAR images and vice versa. It is also the best tool for the density issue. For the time being, people like Deems think using SNOTEL in tandem with LIDAR is the right way to get the best measurements. Rather than replacing SNOTEL, Deems would opt for even more SNOTEL stations…
Deems said [February 6, 2020] that the cost of LIDAR seems justified when you consider the cost of a bad forecast. It is no secret that the low estimate on the Rio Grande in 2013 translated into millions of dollars of water misused after the forecast. Making the investment available for better measurements seems like a no brainer…
Meanwhile, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has already decided to invest $250K in 2021 for flights to measure the Gunnison Basin, of which the Uncompahgre River is a part.
Beyond just production and profit, what really drives agriculturists is possibility. The 2020 Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture zeroes in on this innate quality, with a program full of dynamic speakers and presentations, featuring the latest in innovation, collaboration, and glimpses into what the possibilities of Colorado agriculture holds not just in the present, but the future. The Colorado Agriculture Leadership program is pleased to once again host the Governor’s Ag Forum, with this year’s theme, Brand It Agriculture, promising a day full of networking and discovering what lies ahead for our state’s second-largest economic driver.
Registered attendees of the Forum are also invited to a pre-Forum reception, taking place from 5:30-8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 25, at the History Colorado Center, 1200N. Broadway, Denver, CO 80203. PLEASE NOTE! THIS IS A NEW LOCATION AND TIMES!
A passionate advocate for global agriculture will keynote the 2020 Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture later this month.
Michele Payn, known for being a community catalyst and antagonizing people into action, will speak at the morning general session on Feb. 26 at the Renaissance Denver Stapleton Hotel.
Payn has worked with farmers in more than 25 countries, raised over $5 million in sponsorships for the National FFA Foundation and founded AgChat and FoodChat on Twitter. She is the author of three books: Food Bullying, a #1 best seller; Food Truths from Farm to Table, an IPPY bronze medal winner; No More Food Fights!; and hosts the Food Bullying Podcast. She holds degrees in Agricultural Communications and Animal Science from Michigan State University.
Hosted by the Colorado Agriculture Leadership Program, this year’s Governor’s Ag Forum features a full program of dynamic speakers, breakout sessions, and networking opportunities.
Hemp and mental health will again be on the agenda for the day-long conference. There is a morning session on rural mental health preparedness training, and three sessions having to do with hemp; production and economics, regulation and finance, and the Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan being featured in breakout sessions.
Other sessions will be devoted to bridging the rural and urban gap through media, agritourism, water and the Ag Leadership programs.
The Governor’s Forum will be followed by a reception and banquet for induction of three individuals in to the Farm Credit Colorado Agriculture Hall of Fame. Chris Dinsdale of Sterling, Charles Hanavan, Jr of, Cheyenne Wells and Don Shawcroft of Alamosa will be formally inducted that evening.
A large storm pummeled Colorado on Friday, stranding travelers in the mountains, reducing travel along the Front Range to a crawl and heightening the danger from avalanches in the backcountry.
Treacherous travel did have a silver lining for the state’s water supply.
The snowpack in the upper Colorado headwaters area, comprised of Grand Junction, Glenwood Springs and Aspen, was at 114% Friday. Snowpack in southeastern Colorado, including Colorado Springs and Pueblo, was at 115%, according to data from the National Water and Climate Center…
Loveland pass saw more than 32 inches of snow by Friday evening, data from the National Weather Service showed. Rabbit Ears pass received more than 50 inches, Copper Mountain more than 33 inches and parts of Littleton 12 inches.
Palmer Lake saw about 10 inches of snow, Black Forest 9 inches and southern Colorado Springs about 9 inches, weather service data showed.
Early Friday, avalanches were triggered to reduce the danger of one starting on its own, closing westbound lanes of I-70 at exit 218. Hours later, westbound lanes of the interstate were closed from Golden to the Eisenhower Tunnel, CDOT said.
An avalanche closed I-70 at Frisco, but the interstate was reopened within an hour, state officials said.
And, here’s a reminder of why the storm set up so well across Colorado and the central and northern Rockies.
Satellite imagery shows a relatively cloud-free #NorCal early this morning as high pressure centered over the eastern Pacific keeps most clouds well to the north and east of the region. #CAwxpic.twitter.com/2fq92GlEf4
Click here to read the release from the NRCS (Brian Domonkos):
Water year 2020 has continued to be a mixed bag of conditions across Colorado and month-to-month. This has left the state with above normal snowpack and below normal water year precipitation. This came about after a dry October and early November before the start of the primary snowpack accumulation. “After a particularly dry late summer and fall, December provided substantial snow accumulation in Colorado. January then followed with mostly below average precipitation with southern Colorado being the driest, an area that received the most accumulation in December” notes NRCS Hydrologist Karl Wetlaufer. Statewide snowpack was 109 percent of normal on February 1st and water year to date precipitation was 88 percent. While above normal snowpack exists across the state the precipitation deficit leading to and entering winter have led streamflow forecasts to be mostly below average across the state. Forecasts have overall been following precipitation trends across the major basins of the state.
The most plentiful water supply forecasts currently exist in the combined Yampa and White, Arkansas, and South Platte River basins where the average of forecast values is 98, 97, and 96 percent of normal, respectively. Outlooks for spring and summer streamflows are notably less in basins further to the west and southwest. In the Colorado basin the average of forecasts is for 91 percent of average with the lowest values existing in the western half of the basin. In the Gunnison forecasts average out to be 81 percent of average. At the low end the Rio Grande and combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan basins are forecasted for 77 and 76 percent of average, respectively.
Reservoir storage has steadily dropped statewide throughout the water year, with respect to normal, but storage in some basins has gone up and some have gone down. Currently the only basins holding below average storage are the Rio Grande and Arkansas. The total range of storage values is from a low of 85 percent in the Rio Grande to a high of 127 in the Yampa basin with a statewide average of 105 percent. Details of snowpack and reservoir conditions by basin can be seen in the table below.
At this point in the season Colorado has built about two-thirds of what the normal peak snowpack is in mid-April. “While the dry early season conditions have led to forecasts lower than the snowpack may suggest it is still encouraging to have the snowpack that we do with a few more months of accumulation left. That said, as the last two winters have shown things can continue to be variable and a lot can still change. In the meager 2018 season the snow we have now was all that accumulated by the peak and we have the same amount as we did at this time last year which turned out to be huge by the end of the season” Wetlaufer comments. With respect to Wetlaufer’s comments it is worth noting that much of Colorado is actively being hit by a large winter storm at the time of this writing.
Part of Joellen Russell’s job is to help illuminate the deep darkness — to shine a light on what’s happening beneath the surface of the ocean. And it’s one of the most important jobs in the world right now.
Russell is a professor of biogeochemical dynamics at the University of Arizona. From that dry, landlocked state, she’s become a leading expert on how the climate is changing in the Southern Ocean — those vast, dark waters swirling around Antarctica.
“This is an age of scientific discovery,” she says. But also, “it’s very scary what we’re finding out.”
Researchers like Russell have been ringing alarm bells in report after report warning that the world’s ocean waters are dangerously warming. Most of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gas emissions we’ve spewed into the air for decades has actually been absorbed by the ocean. Over the past 25 years, that heat amounts to the equivalent of exploding 3.6 billion Hiroshima-sized atom bombs, according to Lijing Cheng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and lead author of a new study on ocean warming.
Now we’re beginning to witness the cascading repercussions of that oceanic warming — from supercharged storms to dying coral reefs to crashing fisheries.
There’s still a lot left to learn about these problems, but here’s a look at some of the top findings from researchers, along with what they hope to uncover next.
1. Yes, It’s Definitely Getting Warmer
There’s no doubt among scientists that the ocean is heating and we’re driving it.
The study found ocean waters in 2019 were the warmest in recorded history. And that follows a pattern: The past decade has also seen the warmest 10 years of ocean temperatures, and the last five years have been the five warmest on record.
“Every year the ocean waters get warmer, and the reason is because of the heat-trapping gases that humans have emitted into the atmosphere,” says John Abraham, one of the study’s coauthors and a professor in mechanical engineering at the University of St. Thomas. “It’s concerning for sure.”
2. The Southern Ocean Has Been Hit Worst
Much of this warming occurs between the surface and a depth of 6,500 feet. It’s happening pretty consistently across the globe, but some areas have experienced higher rates of warming. One of those is the Southern Ocean, which has acted as a giant sink, absorbing 43% of our oceanic CO2 emissions and 75% of the heat, scientists have concluded.
That’s because the ocean basin functions like an air conditioner for the planet, says Russell. Strong winds pull up cold water from deep below, and then the cold surface water takes up some heat from the air. When the winds slow, the water sinks, more cold water rises, and the process repeats.
“The sinking water isn’t warm, per se, just a bit warmer than it was when the wind pulled it up,” she says. “In this way the Southern Ocean can sequester a lot of heat well below the surface.”
For that reason what happens in the Southern Ocean is globally important. And it makes new findings all the more concerning.
Normal upwelling of waters from deep in the Southern Ocean has traditionally brought nutrients to the surface, where they then get moved by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the world’s strongest ocean current, to feed marine life in other areas. But new research from Russell and colleagues found that this process will be disrupted as warm waters cause the Southern Ocean’s ice sheets to melt even faster. This will change the historical upwelling and could trap nutrients instead of pushing them out.
That, she says, will “begin to starve the global ocean of nutrients.”
3. A Lot of Changes Are Happening
As bad as that sounds…there’s a lot more.
One of the most obvious results of ocean warming is higher sea levels. That’s caused in part because water expands as it warms.
But there’s also the effect on sea ice. The warmer the water gets, the more ice melts — as is happening in Antarctica. Not surprisingly rates of global sea-level rise are accelerating. This means more property damage, storm surges, and waves lapping at the heels of our coastal communities.
Warmer waters also mean more supercharged storms. An increase in heat drives up evaporation and adds extra moisture to the atmosphere, causing heavy rains, more flooding and more extreme weather events.
In some places it can make drier conditions worse, too. When air rises and cools below the dew point, it turns into clouds or precipitation. “But in places like Arizona or Australia, where rain is generally formed when air is pushed upward over mountains, “the warmer atmosphere might not be cold enough to cause rain,” explains Russell. “This is how a warmer atmosphere carrying more moisture might actually rain less in some places — contributing to drought and therefore fire.”
The recent study in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences identified warming waters as “one of the key reasons why the Earth has experienced increasing catastrophic fires in the Amazon, California, and Australia in 2019 (extending into 2020 for Australia).”
And that’s not all.
Warming ocean waters also contribute to the rise of colonies of algae that can produce toxins deadly to wildlife and sometimes people.
These harmful algal blooms pose a problem even way up in the Gulf of Alaska, where the annual algae season has gotten longer, says Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“That’s all, of course, due to warmer water,” he says.
The biggest change in the region may be along the coast of the Bering Sea, where water temperatures have historically been too cold for the blooms to occur — but that’s starting to change.
“Now the water temperatures are getting up to the point where they’re warm enough to support these harmful algal blooms,” Thoman says. Toxins from the blooms can work their way up the food chain and have even shown up in some marine mammals in the areas. “People are concerned about whether it’s safe to eat their staple foods,” he says.
4. Marine Heat Waves Are Getting Worse
While temperatures are rising across the world’s oceans, some areas are also seeing dangerous short-term spikes known as marine heatwaves.
Scientists anticipate that these heatwaves, which can be fatal to a long list of sea creatures, will continue to get more severe and more frequent as the ocean warms. By the end of the century, conditions in some areas may be akin to a permanent heatwave.
That’s likely to be bad news for everything from seaweed to birds to mammals, and it could result in fundamental changes for food webs and the animals and coastal economies that depend on those resources.
“Collectively, and over time, an increase in the exposure of marine ecosystems to extreme temperatures may lead to irreversible loss of species or foundation habitats, such as seagrass, coral reefs and kelp forests,” a December 2019 study in Frontiers in Marine Science found.
And these changes likely aren’t far off. These marine heatwaves “will emerge as forceful agents of disturbance to marine ecosystems in the near-future,” the researchers wrote.
And scientists now believe that “the blob,” a mass of warm water that persisted off the Pacific Coast from California to Alaska from 2014 to 2016, led to the starvation of an estimated 1 million common murres (Uria aalge) — a normally resilient seabird. The warm waters likely reduced and changed phytoplankton communities — an essential part of the marine food web. But that’s not all. The warm waters increased the metabolism — and the appetite — of big fish like pollock and salmon. That demand spike crashed populations of forage fish that murres usually find plentiful.
Most recently a prolonged marine heatwave off the coast of Alaska led to the closure of region’s commercial Pacific cod fishery for 2020 — the first time that’s ever happened.
“When you cancel whole fisheries, that really impacts people’s lives and livelihoods,” says Thoman.
5. What We Don’t Know
Scientists have enough information now to tell us that we need to quickly change course. But there’s still a lot to learn about how warming temperatures will affect myriad species in the sea, not to mention weather patterns and coastal economies.
One current line of research is to better understand how ocean warming affects weather.
“We know that a warmer ocean means more water evaporates into the atmosphere,” says Abraham. “Consequently, it makes the weather more severe because humidity drives storms. We would like to quantify this. So how much worse is weather now and how bad will it be?”
Some of that information will come from existing systems.
“We live in a time of great change, and the ocean is telling us these stories mostly through our incredible Argo floats,” says Russell. This global network of nearly 3,900 floating sensors can measure temperature, salinity and pressure at varying depths across the world’s oceans.
But in the Southern Ocean, Russell works with an even more advanced group of biogeochemical sensors. They measure nitrates, which can tell researchers about the building blocks of nutrients for the food web. They also measure oxygen, “how the ocean is breathing,” she says, and pH, which helps tell the carbon content of the water.
Russell says she’d like to see this technology put to use in more waters around the world.
“We’re trying to get a global biogeochemical Argo array, but so far haven’t gotten funding for it,” she says. “I’m desperate to see the rest of the ocean because it’s all connected and it’s mixing quickly.”
The Arctic, she says, is one place where this technology would play a particularly valuable role.
“It’s so shallow in many places, and under ice for so much of the year, that we haven’t really been able to get a big float array up there,” she says. “But the Arctic is critical to our national interest and it’s relatively unstudied. Can you imagine that, in this day and age?”
There’s plenty to keep researchers busy, but the rest of us also need to act quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because, the researchers of the Advances in Atmospheric Sciences study concluded, the oceans are so vast that they’ll require years to dissipate all of this excess heat and register the changes we’re starting to make today. Cutting emissions, they wrote, is the only way to reduce “the risks to humans and other life on Earth.”
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan