By Jessica Merzdorf / GRAND MESA LODGE, COLORADO
What is it like to do science nearly 2 miles above sea level?
At a majestic 10,500 feet elevation, Grand Mesa is the world’s tallest mesa, or flat-topped mountain. It’s also the site of an intense month of data collection by NASA’s SnowEx 2020, a ground and airborne campaign testing a variety of instruments that measure the water contained in winter snowpack.
Snow is vital for Earth’s ecosystems and humans, from its temperature-regulating reflection of sunlight and insulating properties, to its life-sustaining water as it melts in the springtime. SnowEx is taking coordinated measurements on the ground and in the air to compare how well different instruments work in different conditions. Not only does this help them improve measurement techniques in the future, but eventually, NASA can use this information in developing a future snow satellite mission.
The “golden” measurement they’re after is snow water equivalent, or SWE (pronounced “swee”).
“SWE is our measure of the volume of water held in the snowpack,” said Carrie Vuyovich, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and SnowEx 2020’s deputy project scientist. “It’s such a crucial measurement because the winter snow is a natural reservoir – when it melts in the spring, it feeds the groundwater, lakes and streams.”
To understand SWE, imagine taking a cubic foot of snow, and measuring how much water is left in the container after you melt it. The amount of water depends on how densely packed the snow is and how big its particles are. Measuring these properties for small amounts of snow and calculating SWE is fairly simple – but measuring it spatially for an entire snowpack over a large mountain range? That requires instruments on planes or satellites that can sense snow properties from a distance in bigger swaths.
We met up with SnowEx operations manager Jerry Newlin of ATA Aerospace on Monday. We were invited to stay with the team during their final week of data collection for this phase of the project. Our first stop was with the airborne team, at Montrose Regional Airport in Montrose, Colorado.
When we arrived, the DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft was grounded due to high winds over the mesa. The Twin Otter carries SWESARR – the Snow Water Equivalent Synthetic Aperture Radar and Radiometer. Developed at NASA Goddard, SWESARR uses active and passive microwave instruments to calculate SWE. Its precise measurements require precise flying, and the 50-knot winds were too strong for the plane to collect good data.
“SWESARR’s active instrument transmits a pulse, which penetrates the snowpack, hitting and interacting with all these little snow particles, and bouncing back to the instrument,” said Batu Osmanoglu, a research scientist at NASA Goddard and the principal investigator of the SWESARR team. “The passive side is more like a thermal camera, collecting the natural radiation coming from the snowpack. These two pieces of information are what we use to infer the SWE for a given area.”
The plane also carries CASIE, the Compact Airborne System for Imaging the Environment. CASIE was developed at the University of Washington and collects data on snow surface temperature, which is important for both validating satellite data and improving models of snow’s surface energy balance – the exchange of energy between the snow, the atmosphere and the ground beneath.
Shortly after we arrived, the team convened for a new weather report: The winds had calmed in time for a late afternoon flight. The airport team prepped the plane for flight while the instrument team got SWESARR ready to go.
After takeoff, it was time for us to take off too: The trip from Montrose to Grand Mesa is just under two hours, and we wanted to reach the lodge before dark. We were hoping for a good night’s rest – after catching up with the airborne team, our next stop was traveling by snowmobile to spend time with the ground team on the mesa.