New Remote Sensing Technologies Applied to Snow Depth Measurements

by Matt Ball on February 14, 2012

NSF-funded scientists field-test new instrumentation to accurately measure snow.

Precise measurements of snow depth are required for water management, transportation, and recreation decision this time of year.  Now, according to the National Science Foundation, scientists at the National Center or Atmospheric Research in Boulder have been developing new technologies that combine lidar, satellite signals and other technologies to instantly measure snow depth at a global scale.

There are inherent problems with traditional methods of snow collection that include:

  • snow gauges that can miss up to a third of snow totals in windy areas, despite deployment of special fencing
  • the regular in-person measurements needed with snow probes that miss ongoing totals from large storms
  • the time-intensive use of boards to measure snow as it falls
  • newer ultrasonic remote sensing is affected by atmospheric conditions such as wind, temperature and humidity

The new specialized laser approach isn’t affected by weather, and can measure across broad areas at an accuracy of an inch or better. The next step with the laser-based approach is to expand it to a broader area to see if it can collect depths over a full square mile. Because of issues with trees as obstructions, the laser-based approach may need to be satellite based, or as a network of more local sensors. Alternatively, the team is exploring the use of GPS sensors from snowfall measurement, where the GPS signal bounces off the snow at different frequency than off of bare soil, helping determine the depth.

Regardless of the approach, it is clear that instant, and more regularly updated snow totals, can be expected from a combination of sensors and systems in the near future.

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