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Experiment Will Help Measure California's Snowpack

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, May 2, 2013

Frank Gehrke, with California's Department of Water Resources walks through dry grass in an open field, seven thousand feet up Echo Summit in the Sierra. This is where the final manual snow survey is taken.

"If you look around, there's not even a patch of snow we can seek out and measure," says Gehrke.

He says it's not surprising, given the unusually dry winter.

Snow provides about a third of the water for California's homes and farms when it melts and flows to reservoirs.

Determining exactly how much water the snow holds is critical. And it's about to get a lot easier.

This is no ordinary plane landing at South Lake Tahoe Airport.

It's an airborne snow observatory run by scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Inside the plane, scientist Tom Painter points to a big black box called a spectrometer.

"This allows us to know how much sunlight is being absorbed by the snow's surface," he says. "That contributes about 90-percent of the energy that goes into melting snow. Forward of it, the Lidar, let's us know the snow depth."

That information - collectively 600 Gigabytes of data - along with ground measurements - gives water managers a really accurate picture.

"We can determine water content over the entire over the entire basin," says Frank Gerhke. "We've never had that before and the more we can accurately forecast what will be available the better management decisions can be made."

The Department of Water Resources will be working with the airborne snow observatory for the next three years.
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