Moving Mountains for Snowpack Research

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Setting out on a Kootenay Watershed Science snow survey. LLC Photo

Does putting on your touring skins and spending the day on a six-hour uphill hike in the mountainous backcountry sound like a decent way to spend your day? How about carving your way back down again in the final light of the setting sun?

For Paul Saso, this is a work day. Paul is a hydrologist with Living Lakes Canada’s Kootenay Watershed Science program. His work involves long treks into high elevation areas (sometimes in -20°C) in order to monitor snowpack.

A Standard Federal Snow Sampler. LLC Photo

At locations across the mountain ranges of the central Kootenays, small climate stations are continuously gathering data on climate variables. They are equipped with precipitation gauges, called tipping buckets, and temperature gauges. Though they are automated, Paul visits these locations to download the data twice a year. From December to April, Paul also manually collects snow data.

In these months Living Lakes Canada measures snowpack in two remote high elevation mountain areas. Paul uses a GPS to find his way to the ten different sample sites that make up a snow course in these areas. At each site he screws together sections of the collection tool – essentially a long metal tube – and jams the tube into the snow, all the way to the ground, while maintaining as vertical a positioning as possible. It takes some effort and technique to break through the ice layers and get down to the bottom of the snowpack while the tube fills with snow.

Paul Saso removes some jammed ice from the Standard Federal Snow Sampler used in snowpack data collection. LLC Photo

Once through all the layers of ice and snow, Paul twists the tube to plug the end with soil from the ground below. He then retracts the sampling tube and weighs it, recording the Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) and depth of the snow. The SWE indicates how much water is sitting in the snowpack, ready to come down in streams when spring arrives.

Snow surveys have been taking place in B.C. since 1935. The data collected during these surveys is used for flood and drought forecasting, water management (for dams, agriculture, etc.), as well as in understanding stream flows and freshwater supply for municipalities. The data also informs climate change research, monitoring how climate change is affecting snowpack in our region.

The survey data collected through Kootenay Watershed Science is used by several organizations, including the B.C. River Forecast Centre (RFC). In January of this year, the RFC released a bulletin indicating that the province had an above average level of snowpack and that this could result in a higher risk for snowmelt related flooding during the spring months.

Kootenay Watershed Science has collected seven years of data from these snow course sites. Continued monitoring will enable us to more accurately understand the effects of climate change on the snowpack in these areas. 

“Snowpack is an important freshwater resource that our communities rely heavily upon. It is essential that we understand how this freshwater supply is changing and our monitoring, together with similar work from around the region, builds this understanding.” ~Paul Saso 

For more information on this program including resources and a complete list of funders and supporters, visit the Kootenay Watershed Science program webpage.

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