Cruising at an altitude of up to 20,000 feet, the Airborne Snow Observatory measures snowpack depth and water content on the peaks of California and Colorado. This repurposed de Havilland Twin Otter plane took off from the Mammoth Yosemite Airport last weekend to begin this season’s regular snow surveys.
The project, funded by NASA and conducted by a team from the Jet Propulsion Laboraty (JPL) in La Cañada, is based this year out of the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL) near Mammoth Lakes.
SNARL Director Dan Dawson said that scientists are living at SNARL and have set up a large computer center to process the data stream from LIDAR (a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to generate three-dimensional information on surface characteristics), spectrometers, GPS, and the instruments that measure the pitch and yaw of the aircraft.
According to a recent Washington Post article on the Airborne Snow Observatory, scientists say they can gather more accurate snowpack data from the air, calculating snow depth within four inches and water content within five percent.
The plane will fly weekly over the Tuolumne River Basin, including the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and will make monthly flights over Colorado’s Uncompahgre River Basin until the end of the snowmelt season.
Tom Painter, the project’s lead investigator, did his Ph.D. at SNARL. Painter will present some of his team’s findings in the first SNARL Lecture of the 2014 season on May 6.