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Scientists work to squeeze more out of Sierra snowpack

by Alan Markow, published

There's debate in some circles about the causes and even the existence of global warming, but there is no question about the critical importance of the quantity and staying power of the annual Sierra snowpack to California.  A weak snow season or an early melt can have a multi-billion dollar impact on California's agricultural industry -- largest in the nation -- and can also squeeze manufacturers, even homeowners.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Western Mountains provide 50 to 80 percent of this region's water supply, and though we can't rely on nature for a consistent quantity of snow each year, we can learn to manage the snowpack more effectively and mitigate the impact of early melts.  One example, according to Kevin Drake of Integrated Environmental Restoration Services (IERS) of Tahoe City, is keeping the melt off of hard surfaces such as roads.

     "The more of the melting snow that filters slowly and naturally through soil, the more moisture we preserve for productive use, and the cleaner the product," Drake explained to me.

Re-directing the flow of melting snowpacks may seem counter-intuitive until you consider that man and nature have been doing so for eons.  Natural and man-made dams are perfect examples.  Think of everything from the work of beavers and the effect of fallen trees to the Hoover Dam.  On the opposite side of the spectrum are the negative impacts of building roads into the mountains and clearing miles of wooded areas for ski and bike runs.

Ski mountains offer the greatest opportunities for mitigation, and IERS along with UC-Berkeley's Sierra Research Center, UC-Davis and other eco-science organizations have been working actively in recent decades to do so.

     "With two great snow years like 2010 and 2011, this work may seem irrelevant," Drake said.  "But you only have to think back to the three preceding drought years to realize the volatility of weather patterns and the need for conservation."

An article that Drake co-authored with IERS colleague Michael Hogan, UC-Berkeley researcher Randall Osterhuber and UC-Davis scientist Mark Grismer peeks into future, drier years to find methods to protect less robust snowpacks.  Their experiments show that blanketing areas of snowpack with natural wood chip covers of up to 4" deep actually stretches the life of the snowmelt, which results in an increased amount of water received by the state of California.

Applying wood chips to ski runs might not be popular during ski season, but could be done cheaply with equipment and resources readily available to ski resorts just as the season ended.  In fact, European ski resorts take similar measures using large, synthetic blankets to protect their snowpacks, according to Drake.  Because American ski runs tend to be narrower and more wooded, blankets would be far less effective (and far more expensive) than natural materials.

Osterhuber warned that taking his experiment from small plots of snow to larger swaths of land would require much more developmental work by teams of experts, but he was recently surprised to find other ways that the concept had already been used.

     "A woman contacted me after reading my paper to tell of a hospital in Sweden that uses large amounts of stored snow, covered in wood chips, as a heat exchanger when air conditioning the building mid-summer," he said.

Environmental science is not always about politics, but it is usually about conserving our natural resources.  Water is a precious commodity that grows more so with growing demands on a variable resource.  Squeezing more water out of each year's snowpack is a goal worth pursuing.

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