Snowpack could be measured better with grant for U of U researchers

Apr 7, 2022, 9:11 AM

Snowpack is already seemingly low, but some grant money could help U of U researchers develop bette...

File photo: A mix of a shallow snowpack and dry hillsides can be seen in Emigration Canyon on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. (PHOTO: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

(PHOTO: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Is it possible to get a more complete picture of the state’s snowpack and water situation? Researchers from the University of Utah just got a large grant which they say could help hydrologists have better information about what’s really on the slopes. 

University of Utah Civil Engineering Professor Carlos Oroza has high praise for the snowpack data collected by the Utah Snow Survey, but he says they have their limitations.  The survey has SNOTEL sensors placed along the mountains that provide real-time data on snowpacks, however, people still have to climb the mountains to get good measurements.

“The thing is that the mountains are huge and very complex, and we can only put a few of those sensors out there,” Oroza said.

He says there are a lot of factors that have an impact on the amount of water we can expect from snowmelt, not just snow depths.  Oroza says hydrologists need better tools to accurately see everything that could impact the reservoirs.

“Where are the trees are, what the slopes are… is it north-facing or is it south-facing, [and] is it a steep slope or a shallow slope?  All those things affect how much snow is up there,” said Oroza.

He and several other researchers received a grant for up to $7 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to place lidar (laser radar) sensors in several locations, plus fly drones equipped with lidar to take more complete pictures of the areas they’re observing.  Oroza says this allows them to learn more than just what the current snow depths are.

He says, “Lidar gives us really high-resolution data about the entire mountainside.”

Researchers also plan to use other resources, like backcountry skiers, to help them fill in the gaps.

“Backcountry skiers are out there measuring the snow depths at certain points,” according to Oroza.

Oroza believes this research could not only help them better understand drought conditions, but it could make it easier for safety officials to predict potential floods.

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Snowpack could be measured better with grant for U of U researchers