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Snowtography sticks are springing up in Southwest Colorado

Snowtography sites in the Southwest could foster more climate-resilient forests
Lenka Doskocil, the water program research associate at Mountain Studies Institute, explains how the Jackson Mountain snowtography site is designed to capture data on snow melt timing and pace along the edges of the clearing. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

JACKSON MOUNTAIN – Two straight lines of 6-foot-tall red and white measuring sticks divide a small clearing near the Jackson Mountain trail head into quarters. A young buck wanders through the meadow east of Pagosa Springs, undisturbed and unaware of its recent transformation.

The unassuming installation – a series of measuring sticks, cameras and moisture sensors – is part of a growing network of snowtography sites across the Southwestern United States that is helping to reshape scientists’ and water managers’ understanding of how forest management impacts snow melt.

“We are trying to create climate-resilient forests and water supplies,” said Jake Kurzweil, the associate director of MSI’s water program.

These simple installations are beginning to proliferate throughout Arizona and Colorado – the Jackson Mountain site is one of five in Southwest Colorado. There are three more located near Dolores and another on Red Mountain Pass.

The scientists behind them say the data snowtography yields is likely to increase the control humans have over the melting snowpack.

A buck wanders through the The Jackson Mountain snowtography site earlier this month. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)
A different type of data

Snow telemetry, or SNOTEL, sites popped up beginning in the 1970s and provided a sort of all-in-one mechanism to track snowfall. The installations gather data on the weather, depth of the snow as well as how much water it contains (the snow-water equivalent).

But they come with a downside: about $250,000 in associated costs.

Snowtography is different. The sites are equipped with just $15,000 worth of basic equipment and produce a different type of data.

“They’re way more intense,” Lenka Doskocil, a water program research associate at the Mountain Studies Institute, said of SNOTEL sites. “This is the most basic form of snow measurement, which is, how deep is it.”

A series of cameras mounted on trees throughout the plot take several pictures each day, capturing images of all 35 stakes on the plot. The images provide daily data points tracking the snow depth across the plot throughout the winter. Staff will visit the plot every other week and download the pictures, as well as the data recorded by four soil moisture monitors buried around the site.

“We’re using automated trail cameras and painted sticks, and as far as I know, there’s nothing patentable within it,” said Joel Biederman, the research hydrologist with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service in Tucson, Arizona.

But the data is not just courser than SNOTEL – it has a broader reach.

Biederman, who is also a research associate at the University of Arizona, ran across an old snowtography site while working in the field with students some years ago. The site was faded, but Biederman saw it was capable of providing the kind of data he was after.

“We're using automated trail cameras and painted sticks, and as far as I know, there's nothing patentable within it,” said Joel Biederman, the research hydrologist with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service in Tucson, Arizona. The cameras capture images of the measuring sticks recording the depth of snow on a daily basis. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

He had been measuring snow depths by hand and aggregating SNOTEL data to paint a better picture of the snowpack across the landscape. He pointed out that SNOTEL provides data only from a singular point.

“Critically, that one point is almost always a shaded clearing that captures and holds more snow than anywhere else on the landscape,” Biederman said. “ … They don't tell us anything about how forests are regulating snow.”

That unknown is important, Biederman says, because forests are changing rapidly. And so is the way they regulate snow.

Learning in changing forests

The plot at Jackson Mountain was carefully selected by Kurzweil and reviewed by Biederman.

The stakes span a clearing, ending approximately 15 meters into the forest on either end. The “cool” side of the clearing is located to the south, where the tall trees block the sun’s radiation but the exposed ground still accumulates snow. The “warm” side of the site is located to the north, where the lack of trees allows the sun to directly shine on the snowpack.

“As we speak, forests are changing super rapidly due to drought, insect infestation like bark beetles or spruce budworm, and then of course wildfire,” Biederman said. “And then we have the human response trying to be proactive about that with management.”

The result of those changes is swathes of forest wiped out by insects, logging or thinning operations, wildfire-ravaged slopes or, alternatively, a wildfire-adapted landscape that has not burned in a century.

Forest Programs Assistant Julia Ledford checks one of the cameras at the Jackson Mountain snowtography site. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

“It’s well known that there are different, what we call, snow environments,” Biederman said.

But how they impact the reservoir of water, that is, the annual snowpack, remains less than clear. Less snow falls directly under trees as it gets intercepted by branches. That snow sublimates, meaning it evaporates directly back into the atmosphere, before it can ever seep into the ground water or flow through an irrigation ditch.

On the other hand, snow that is able to land near trees is a little bit more shielded from the sun and wind than snow out in the open, Biederman said. But exactly what the degree of coverage does to the snowpack has yet to be studied.

The bigger picture

Management of reservoirs, such as Lake Nighthorse, locally, or Lake Mead, farther downstream, can send water wonks into a dizzying conniption as the over-allocated Colorado River slowly bleeds dry.

But Biederman and Kurzweil are looking upstream, although not in the typical sense of “the upper basin.”

Snowpack is a reservoir too, and if snowtography can help explain how different forest gradients impact the duration and time at which it melts, might it also inform forest managers in making more water-conscious decisions?

“I certainly hope so,” Biederman said.

The speed and timing of snow melt impacts what happens to the water, he explained. Snowtography can help predict that.

“We'd really like to be able to inform forest management to see if we can improve any of those outcomes,” Biederman said.

“This is the most basic form of snow measurement, which is how deep is it,” said Lenka Doskocil, the water program research associate. The stakes behind her measure the snow depth, while a sensor placed in the hole she is digging will capture soil moisture. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

Thanks to funding from The Nature Conservancy in Arizona and Colorado River Program, Biederman has been able to fund a growing number of snowtography sites in the Colorado River basin. There are now 15 sites across Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming.

The data will be publicly available, and Biederman hopes to hire a data scientist to create a more formalized database of the information.

“We want to make sure that this data is not just for, say, a reservoir manager or a municipality but that somebody who's not a scientist is able to read this information and understand and say, ‘Well, what does this mean for me?’” Kurzweil said.

The impacts are broad, he said, because climate change poses such interdisciplinary questions.

“As we go into this intensified climate change, we need to have diversified solutions,” Kurzweil said. “There is no silver bullet. We're looking for the silver shotgun.”


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