Trying to interview guys who wear backcountry skis to work can be tough…especially when trudging behind on snowshoes with a pack full of recording equipment. But my visit to the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory was worth the slog.
It’s a patch of forest at about 6,000 feet near Shaver Lake in the Southern Sierra, in what’s known as the rain-snow transition zone. The snowpack at this elevation is likely to be the first to reflect climate change as temperatures warm and snow turns to rain. Scientists at UC Merced’s Sierra Nevada Research Institute, in conjunction with UC Berkeley, have developed new, high tech sensors to intensively monitor snow melt and runoff here.
The idea of remote sensors isn’t entirely new. The state snow survey uses some 125 automatic sensors across the whole Sierra. But this project packs a two-square-kilometer area with more than 50 sophisticated snow sensors that transmit wireless data using cell phone technology. They also measure about a dozen factors, like solar radiation, humidity, and soil moisture. You can see them, and a single tree wired with about 400 sensors, here in this photo slideshow.
This high-tech surveying sounds like a good idea, even to the guy who’s built his career doing snow surveys the old way: slogging up mountains to slide a metal pole in the snow.
“We can’t just rely upon technology and procedures developed 100 years ago and expect them to necessarily serve us well in today’s age,” said Frank Gehrke, who heads the Cooperative Snow Surveys for California’s Department of Water Resources.
Gehrke admits that “guesstimates” based on taking manual samples don’t really give us a truly accurate picture of how much water the mountains hold.
“To try to take those point measurements and attempt to compute the total volume of snow water equivalent in a given basin is really a fool’s errand,” he said. “It just simply doesn’t work.”
But it wouldn’t work to put these new wireless gizmos across the entire Sierra Nevada, either. The goal is to focus on a few critical study areas to help get a more nuanced model of the snowpack in different kinds of environments. Scientists have started installing a cluster of instruments in the American River Basin, above Folsom Dam.