Today @ Colorado State has been replaced by SOURCE. This site exists as an archive of Today @ Colorado State stories between January 1, 2009 and September 8, 2014.

Research / Discovery

Measuring frozen water

May 11, 2009

On a January morning high in the mountains of Colorado, the wind is surprisingly light as Steven Fassnacht, associate professor in the Watershed Science program, steps out of a van and blinks in the sunshine playing over Cameron Pass. With the help of two graduate students, he rattles around in the van, packing sections of aluminum tubing, probe poles, and other gear he'll use to make snow measurements in the area.

Water for agriculture, Front Range taps

He glances out over the winter landscape, seeing the drifting snow as something more than a recreational playground. He sees the deep, untracked powder as a major source of water for agriculture and home taps along the Front Range, and he’s dedicated to finding better, more accurate ways of measuring this treasure our lives depend on. He’s fascinated with the variables of hydrological modeling, research that helps water forecasters determine how much of the resource will be available during runoff, the season when inert snow turns liquid and begins moving to the pull of gravity.

Photo at right: Snow guru Steven Fassnacht (center), demonstrates the cold facts about taking measurements to students Mallory Kendall and Jamie Fuller on a February field trip to Cameron Pass.

Snow sampler - an expensive ruler

This trip also helps Fassnacht hone the skills of Amir Kashipazha and Joel Murray, both Ph.D. students in the Department of Geosciences in the Warner College of Natural Resources. Knee-deep in snow, the three men assemble a lightweight aluminum tube called a federal snow sampler, which they push gingerly into the snow. They remove the sampler and weigh it, then plug the results into a formula that determines water equivalence. Fassnacht then cleans the end of the $3,000 sampler with another technical device – an old butter knife.

The men take other measurements with a global positioning unit and a depth probe – Fassnacht calls it an expensive ruler – then they pack up and move to another site a few minute’s drive east. Here, in a meadow close to an automated snow and weather monitoring station called SNOTEL (SNOwpack TELemetry), the team digs a snow pit a good meter down and spends more than an hour taking density and temperature profiles of the layers.

“The automated stations total 104 in Colorado, but there are also 107 manually sampled snow courses that are helping us understand more about trends in climate and climate change,” Fassnacht says. “Data also support irrigation planning and other water forecasting that benefits agriculture, residential and industrial water supplies, hydropower, even the ski industry – you name it.”

Automated monitoring stations, manual snow courses

Bursts of sun light up Diamond Peaks to the west then blink off behind rushing clouds, but the team is concentrating on inspecting snow crystals with a loupe. Their research ultimately will help define and hone data to supplement projects such as SNOTEL, a cooperative survey run by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The USDA has been collecting snow data since the 1930s and started installing automated sites in the late 1970s. Throughout the West, 1,200 manually sampled snow courses and 700 SNOTEL stations add valuable data to the overall water picture.

Barely visible in the bottom of the snow pit, Kashipazha calls out numbers to Murray, who enters them into a field book. “Depth at 110 is minus 7 degrees C,” he says. Over at the edge of the meadow, Fassnacht is running a tape measure across the top of the snow to take depth measurements with his probe pole at prescribed distances.

“When I first got to CSU, I wasn’t really thinking about snow research,” Murray says. “Then I talked with Steven, and he was so enthusiastic, I was hooked.” Murray, whose undergraduate degrees are from Penn State and University of Idaho, worked as a geographic information system specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before transferring to CSU from Oregon State. “It’s a much better fit for me here,” he says. “I like being a part of something that’s so important to Colorado.”

Students get hooked

Kashipazha now is carefully pulling snow samples from the wall of the pit with a pie-shaped wedge cutter. He reads more numbers off a small digital scale.  Kashipazha’s undergraduate and graduate degrees are from Iran, his home country, but when he started considering a doctorate, one of his teachers recommended Colorado State.

“CSU is well known as one of the best schools in natural resources in a number of different disciplines,” he says. Fassnacht finishes his measurements and lurches back over to the snow hole through thigh-deep powder. Well-known in his own right, he’s been coming to Cameron and other areas since 2003. Prior to that, he was a research associate at the University of Arizona and a graduate student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, where he also earned his undergraduate degree. He’s also studied or done research in Quebec, Germany, Yellowknife in the Northern Territories, Antarctica, and most recently in the Spanish Pyrenees Mountains.

Winter snow becomes spring runoff

The wind here at 3,085 meters is picking up, and thicker clouds are sailing in. Storms may be brewing, but Fassnacht says the weather has never been a problem. He enjoys variations in the weather just as much as the challenges of measuring variables in snowpack.

The team packs up gear and, before leaving, fills the hole until the snow is level again. Within hours, there may not be any trace of their bootprints in this meadow, a winter holding tank scoured and shaped by wind and frozen flakes of water.

by Paul Miller

Originally published in Colorado State Magazine, Spring 2009.