Snow sleuths: Researchers around the world join forces to investigate missing snow, improve #water resources modeling — The University of Washington

This winter, Professor Jessica Lundquist is co-leading the Sublimation of Snow (SOS) project in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Photo credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Click the link to read the article on the University of Washington website (Brooke Fisher):

A single snowflake hadn’t yet fallen when a team of civil and environmental engineering snow researchers descended on a small town in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains this past fall. But that was intentional — they were preparing for the coming winter’s mission to answer a longstanding research question: What happens to snow after it falls?

The researchers are investigating a phenomenon known as sublimation, which is the transition of snow directly from a solid state into water vapor, skipping the liquid stage. This is similar to the behavior of dry ice, in which frozen carbon dioxide vaporizes. Currently the largest source of uncertainty in snow modeling, sublimation has the potential to be an important insight for water resources management, especially estimating future water reserves.

Professor Jessica Lundquist and scientist Steve Oncley (MS Atmospheric Sciences ‘83), who leads NCAR’s Earth Observing Laboratory, set-up a sensor to measure blowing snow. Photo credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

“Sublimation is an extremely hard thing to measure. Lots of people have tried and come to different conclusions,” says Professor Jessica Lundquist, who is co-leading the Sublimation of Snow (SOS) project. “This will be the first time it’s been looked at with this level of detail in a mountain region.”

In one of the largest efforts to date — the combination of three field campaigns, plus additional research organizations — the UW team is collaborating with researchers around the country to leverage expertise and equipment. In early October, Lundquist and graduate students Danny Hogan and Eli Schwat arrived at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), located north of Crested Butte, Colorado. They deployed equipment and planned for data collection, which the graduate students will conduct on-site this winter.

“It takes this kind of effort to solve something this difficult. It’s a question of scale — we need both tiny and big measurements,” Lundquist explains. “It’s exciting when you see so many different people and agencies come together and say ‘We’ll work together as a team.’”

Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, the SOS project is led in collaboration with alumna Julie Vano (CEE Ph.D. ’13), research director for Aspen Global Change Institute. In addition to SOS, participating field campaigns are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s SPLASH project and the U.S. Department of Energy’s SAIL project. Also involved are the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Earth Observing Laboratory, the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (SLF), and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL).

The East River Valley, northwest of the historic town of Gothic, home to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. The mountain with the pointed peak in the distance is Mount Crested Butte. Photo credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

The Colorado River watershed is an ideal site to study sublimation, as the phenomenon occurs more often in dry climates. In recent years, there have also been unexplainable decreases in the river’s flow, which people in seven states depend upon for drinking water. In 2021, the Colorado River snowpack was estimated at 80% of average, but streamflows ended up being only 30% of average. The researchers speculate that the discrepancy may in part be explained by sublimation.

“Forty million people depend on the Colorado River, and snow is the biggest input in the water resource equation,” Hogan says. “We don’t really know how much water is being lost from sublimation definitively.”

Current models used to predict sublimation rely on a fundamental theory, developed in flat cornfields in Kansas in the 1950s, that has proven to be inaccurate in more complex terrain, such as mountainous regions. Models based on this theory vary widely in terms of how much snow is predicted to sublimate, ranging from 10-90%.

“A simple way to explain why the theory in the prairie doesn’t apply in complex terrain is to imagine a river flow — it behaves well over smooth ground, but if you introduce bumps to the river bed, the flow becomes complicated,” Schwat says. 

To improve future models, the researchers are working to better understand the precise combination of conditions that lead to sublimation, which tends to occur during low temperatures, low humidity and when both strong sunlight and wind are present. Since sublimation impacts snow on the surface and likely the snowflakes blowing above, the researchers will be paying close attention to the top layer of snow. They’ll also be investigating the characteristics of the turbulent air motions above — which can fluctuate widely depending on wind and other conditions. 

“Studies show that when snowflakes are picked up by the wind and blown around, they may sublimate, so blowing snow is not necessarily just deposited elsewhere,” Schwat explains.

he NCAR’s Integrated Surface Flux System team sets up sonic anemometers on two separate towers, which will be used to measure turbulent air motions. Photo credit: Mark Stone/University of Washtington
Project leaders, Professor Jessica Lundquist and alumna Julie Vano (CEE Ph.D. ’13), from left, set-up a snow pillow. Photo credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington
A skyward view of a 65-foot tall tower with Steve Oncley, (MS Atmospheric Sciences ‘83), who leads NCAR’s Earth Observing Laboratory, in the foreground. Oncley is connecting sensors to data loggers. Photo credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

In a mountain valley located about a mile from RMBL, the UW team deployed an array of sensors, including “snow pillows,” which weigh the snow to monitor the amount of water in the snowpack. Four towers, up to 65 feet tall, were installed by collaborators for meteorological measurements, such as wind speed. Other instrumentation includes X-Band Radar, Doppler Lidar and terrestrial laser scanners to measure and track blowing snow.

“Few studies have the unique combination of instruments that we have here, both in terms of variety and sheer quantity,” Hogan says. “We’ll be able to see how well the theoretical equations and relationships play out when we have measurements at so many levels.”

Winter observations

In January, the graduate students will return to Colorado to oversee field observations through mid-March. They will stay on-site in cabins, as RMBL is only accessible via cross-country skiing during winter months.

NCAR engineer Chris Roden instructs the winter residents, Danny Hogan and Eli Schwat (from left), on how to troubleshoot potential system issues during the winter with the equipment that will be recording meteorological measurements. Photo credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

“It’s a unique spot where we are staying, about four miles from the town of Crested Butte, so it’s ski in and ski out, which makes for more of an adventure feel to the field work,” Hogan says.

In addition to maintaining the field equipment, the graduate students will gather measurements during various weather conditions. In late January, the students will be joined by Lundquist, Vano and collaborators for two weeks of intensive observations. In addition to better understanding the process that leads to sublimation, the researchers hope to discern what types of measurements and instrumentation can best predict snow sublimation in a mountain valley.

To highlight the importance of the project to people whose water comes from mountain regions, as well as the larger science community, Vano and her team at the Aspen Global Change Institute are already working on outreach. Through the creation of videos and other educational materials, they hope to bring more visibility to the often overlooked topic.

“It’s in this intersecting space between hydrology and atmospheric sciences,” Vano says. “Hopefully through this work there will be a greater awareness of what snow sublimation is and the value and excitement of doing this type of research.”

Lose the turf, gain a garden: As #water resources dwindle in the U.S. west due to #drought and #ClimateChange, #Colorado residents are tossing the turf and opting instead for rain gardens. — #conservation

Photo from the Colorado Independent.

Click the link to read the article on the webite (Keely Chalmers). Here’s an excerpt:

More and more homeowners are doing away with a traditional turf lawn in order to conserve a lot of water.

“The average American uses 160 to 180 gallons of water per day and then here in Colorado, about half of that is used on our outdoor irrigation,” according to Jessica Thrasher with Colorado State University.

Over the last year, she and a team of volunteers installed rain gardens across the Front Range as part of a pilot program. It’s a simple and attractive way to save not just a little but a lot of water.  More than 300 people applied for the program…The Colorado Water Center even has tutorial on its website showing, step-by-step how to build your own rain garden. In addition, Colorado’s Turf Replacement program went into effect last summer. It offers funding to communities so they can replace turf in order to reduce outdoor water usage.

After a four-year campaign, New York says yes to publicly owned renewables: The state has set ambitious climate targets. Now it’ll build the clean energy it needs to meet them — Grist #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Wind turbines and electrical substation of Alpha Ventus Offshore Wind Farm in the North Sea. By SteKrueBe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Click the link to read the article on the Grist website (Akielly Hu):

On Tuesday [May 2, 2023], New York lawmakers passed a law that, for the first time, authorizes the New York Power Authority — the largest state public power authority in the U.S. — to build renewable energy projects to help reach the state’s climate goals. 

The new Build Public Renewables Act, passed as part of New York’s annual budget, is a culmination of four years of organizing by climate and community organizations, and has been heralded as a major win by energy democracy, environmental justice, and labor groups. 

“This will enable us to build renewable energy projects with gold-standard labor language, ensuring that the transition to renewable energy benefits working people and their families,” Patrick Robbins, an organizer with the grassroots Public Power NY Coalition, told Grist. 

The new law directs the New York Power Authority to plan, construct, and operate renewable energy projects in service of the state’s renewable energy goals. Under New York’s 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the state aims to generate 70 percent of its electricity from renewables and cut overall greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030.

The Build Public Renewables Act includes several provisions to prioritize clean energy access for low- and middle-income customers, organized labor, and a just transition for workers displaced from fossil fuel projects. It requires the New York Power Authority to establish a program allowing low- and moderate-income electricity customers in disadvantaged communities to receive credits on their monthly utility bills for any renewable energy produced by the power authority. 

The new law also stipulates that workers or contractors hired for these new renewable energy projects must be protected by a collective bargaining agreement. And it instructs the public power authority to enter into a memorandum of understanding with labor unions to uphold and protect pay rates, training, and safety standards for workers supporting the operation and maintenance of such projects. Candidates who have lost employment in the oil and gas sector will be prioritized for those positions. Beginning in 2024, the authority will also be authorized to allocate up to $25 million each year toward worker-training programs for the renewable energy sector.

Activists applaud a provision to phase out so-called peaker power plants owned by the New York Power Authority by 2030 and replace them with renewable energy systems. These small natural gas power plants quickly start and stop during times of peak energy demand, typically in the summer, when air-conditioning use ramps up. They are also a major source of pollution and sickness for nearby communities. 

In a 2021 report, a coalition of state environmental justice groups found that 78 percent of residents living within one mile of the plants are either low income or people of color. The report also found that peaker plants contribute up to 94 percent of New York’s nitrogen oxide pollution, a key component of smog, on high-ozone days.

The law had been introduced — and failed to pass — the last two consecutive years before finally passing this year. New York state Assembly Member Sarahana Shrestha, elected this past November, was a key force in pushing the legislation through the state assembly. Before serving in the assembly, she was an organizer with the Public Power NY Coalition and the New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, helping to rally around the Build Public Renewables Act. She ran on a climate campaign aligned with the public power movement, which aims to shift energy utilities from the traditional investor-owned, private model to public ownership and democratic governance. 

To Shrestha, the new law addresses “fundamental questions like who should own energy, who should serve energy, at what cost, and what kind of energy should we be making, and who should be deciding those things.”

The bill prevailed despite opposition from groups including the Independent Power Producers of New York, a trade association of energy companies working in renewables and fossil fuels, and the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, a coalition of renewable energy businesses. 

In a joint letter to New York Governor Kathy Hochul, the two organizations and four other groups stated that having the public power authority build renewables “does not create a level playing field with the private sector.” They also raised concerns that the law does not address ongoing barriers to clean energy development in New York, such as delays in connecting to transmission systems and permitting. 

Proponents of the law argue that industry resistance was outweighed by broad support from community-based organizations, environmental justice groups, and unions representing more than 1 million workers in New York.

Another factor in the law’s successful passage was last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, President Joe Biden’s landmark climate spending legislation. The federal law provides newly expanded tax credits for renewables and makes them available to tax-exempt public power entities like the New York Power Authority. 

Shrestha and other advocates hope that the new Build Public Renewables Act will inspire similar legislation in other states — and they’re already seeing local Democratic Socialists of America chapters and other advocacy groups reach out. 

“The reason I am excited about this win is not because our work is done, but now it means we can start our work,” Shrestha said. 

About 12,000 cfs at the start of the #ColoradoRiver Park in #GrandJunction – high & fast! — Hannah Holm #COriver #runoff

Colorado River ~12,000 cfs April 7, 2023. Photo credit: Hannah Holm

From Hannah Holm via Twitter.