Westwide Snow School to Teach Sampling and Survival

DAVIS, Calif., — Scientists, engineers, and technicians employed in the water resources arena will convene at Granlibakken Conference Center in Tahoe City, Calif., for training in snow sampling, avalanche recognition, outdoor survival, and emergency care.

The annual Westwide Snow Survey School is held in western states on a rotating basis and is part of the effort to predict water supply based on snow pack, precipitation, observed stream flow, soil moisture, and other climatic data. The school is conducted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The training is required of all snow surveyors collecting data for NRCS and has been held nearly every year since 1950.

The current near-record dry conditions in the area notwithstanding, the 2012 training will take place the week of Jan. 8-13, 2012. It includes an overnight survival bivouac on Wednesday, January 11. Typically each participant is required to build a snow cave and spend the night in it. This year students will still learn to improvise shelter in outdoor conditions, but probably without the insulating power of snow.

“Accurate snow sampling sometimes needs to be done in some pretty remote locations,” said School Coordinator Tony Tolsdorf, a hydrologist at the NRCS National Water and Climate Center in Portland, Ore. “It is rare, but occasionally snow samplers get caught in the elements and have to hole in and wait for help. It’s a possibility we must recognize and prepare for – with or without significant snow pack.”

“Approximately 75 percent of the western U.S.’s water comes from melting mountain snow. Measuring and interpreting snow pack results is vital information for drought, floods, and water supply for agriculture, industry, cities, and wildlife managers,” added Tolsdorf,.

NRCS also operates an automated system to collect snowpack data in the western United States called SNOwpack TELemetry (SNOTEL). The system evolved from NRCS’s Congressional mandate in the mid-1930s “to measure snowpack in the mountains of the West and forecast the water supply.”

Since 1980, SNOTEL has reliably collected the data needed to produce water supply forecasts. Climate studies, air and water quality investigations, and resource management concerns are all served by the SNOTEL network. The high-elevation watershed locations and the broad coverage of the network provide important data collection opportunities to researchers, water managers, and emergency managers for natural disasters such as floods. Information from SNOTEL sites in California can be found at http://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/snotel/California/california.html.