Resources > Video: Laser Mapping of Mountain Snowpacks: NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory

Laser Mapping of Mountain Snowpacks: NASA's Airborne Snow Observatory

Naturalist Nights 2014 | Jeff Deems

River runoff from mountain watersheds in the western US comes primarily from snowmelt. Runoff forecasts currently rely on measurements at a small number of point locations or geographically-limited manual surveys – SNOTEL or snow surveys. These data sources provide only a limited snapshot of snow conditions, and do not allow us to adapt our forecast techniques and water management operations to changing snow conditions, due to climate change, dust-on-snow, or unusual storm tracks. A new technology is being applied: the NASA JPL Airborne Snow Observatory’s airborne laser scanning system maps snow depth at high spatial and temporal resolutions, providing an unprecedented snowpack monitoring capability and enabling a new operational paradigm. A new technology is being applied: the NASA JPL Airborne Snow Observatory’s airborne laser scanning system maps snow depth at high spatial and temporal resolutions, providing an unprecedented snowpack monitoring capability and enabling a new operational paradigm. In the Spring of 2013, the Airborne Snow Observatory team mapped snow depth across the Tuolumne River Basin in California’s Yosemite National Park on a weekly interval and provided fast-turnaround snow depth and water equivalent maps to the operators of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the water supply for 2.5 million people on the San Francisco peninsula. These products improved the runoff forecast accuracy and enabled optimal reservoir management in a year of very low snow accumulation. The Uncompahgre River Basin in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado is the Colorado River Basin test location for the Airborne Snow Observatory. Monthly surveys in 2013 demonstrate the potential application of these measurements. This presentation will introduce this new airborne science capability, showcase the initial results from California and Colorado, and discuss future missions and a vision for operational snow hydrology.

Jeff Deems is a Research Scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he works with the NOAA Western Water Assessment and the National Snow and Ice Data Center. A long-time skier, his research interests pertain mostly to observing and investigating the dynamics of mountain snowpacks, snowmelt, and avalanches, through field research, remote sensing, and computer modeling.

Naturalist Nights are brought to you through a partnership between Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, Wilderness Workshop, and Roaring Fork Audubon.

Jeff Deems, Ph.D.

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