Listening to a college professor explain why he’s on sabbatical, might be the greatest motivator to return to academia. I recently got the academic itch while sitting in on the latest SNARL (Sierra Nevada Aquatics Research Lab) lecture on Thursday at the Green Church. Former Mammoth Lakes local, Jeff Frolik, now a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Vermont, enlightened a packed house with his lecture, “Understanding Snowpacks: Developing New Sensors for Old Problems.”
I have to admit I was duped into attending the lecture thinking the topic was on locating stashed Coors Lights in snow mounds on opening day. To my disappointment, it turns out it was on detecting water content in snowpack (not beer) using new high-tech methods.
Frolik spent his sabbatical this winter at SNARL setting up various sensors in snowpacks while trying to determine the best and most affordable ways to detect SWE (snow water equivalence).
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a sabbatical it’s essentially a paid vacation. Imagine being sent to Hawaii for 5 months and all you have to do, besides being paid to lay on the beach oiled up like a Christmas ham, is count fish eggs once a week.
Old methods of studying snowpack involved costly and invasive practices. The most popular were methods such as snowscaling, which uses a large scale to weigh snow and a dip-stick method called tube insertions, which if you’ve had a colonoscopy is ridiculously uncomfortable and invasive to everyone.
Frolik decided we needed a better way to detect SWE other than violating snow with tubes. So while on vacation, er, I mean “sabbatical,” Frolik experimented with differing types of sensors that could be networked together and accurately detect SWE while sending the data back to one main computer.
This network of sensors could be easily placed in various locations throughout a snowpack using a method that University of Vermont students dubbed, SnowMAN (Snow Monitoring Analysis Network). This vast network of small antennas and sensors could hypothetically be cheaply dispersed, while providing accurate and important data. The purpose of Frolik’s study was to determine which method of non-evasive sensors would provide the most accurate information.
One method involved using a small microwave sensor placed on the ground while snow is absent. During the winter as the snow piled up, Frolik used another sensor above the snow to detect how weak the signal got between the 2 sensors, therefore determining the amount of moisture in the snowpack. Though seemingly an original idea by Frolik, this approach did not impress me; the practice of stealing your neighbor’s internet and adjusting ones laptop for a better signal is an ancient yet sacred practice amongst Mammoth locals.
Frolik also tinkered with an approach that utilizes the natural absorption of gamma radiation in snow. Protons are naturally emitted from snow based on its moisture content; so Frolik set up a sensor box above a snowpack that would detect and chronicle different types of protons. This method allows the vacationer, er, I mean the professor, the opportunity to determine the SWE by analyzing the differing types and the amount of protons that have been emitted.
The result of Frolik’s study showed that there is still work to be done inanalyzing snowpacks. But the combination of new wireless sensor methods with old methods like tube poking can provide us with more accurate data on snowpacks than ever before.
Though sounding like a cheap vacation, Frolik’s work is no joke. Analyzing snowpack is a crucial venture. It’s not just about snowshoeing and skiing around for a winter while getting paid. Collecting data from snowpack’s is vital to understanding and accurately predicting how much water will be collected in our local aquifers and rivers.
This is important to Mammoth Lakes and the Owens Valley since the majority of our water comes from snowpack. I was hoping Frolik might also mention something about that 30 rack of Coors I lost at Main Lodge last November, but now I suppose I’ll just have to invest in a metal detector and an avalanche probe.
Don’t miss the next SNARL lecture, “Water Resources and Climate Change” by Jeffrey Pines on May 26, at 7 p.m. in the Green Church on U.S. 395.