Skiers, snowboarders, snow lovers, and the one billion people on the planet who depend on seasonal snowpack for their water supply will want to listen to this new podcast, Researching Snow: More Than Just Hitting the Slopes, which was developed by Boise State University Assistant Professor of Geophysics, Dr. Hans-Peter Marshall. Why is so great (and relevant)? Because it explains to listeners just why it’s so essential that he and fellow scientists delve deep into the cryosphere, that is, those parts of the Earth’s surface where water is found in solid form — snow, sea ice, glaciers, permafrost, ice sheets, and icebergs.
“I hope this podcast will help people understand the importance of snow science,” says Marshall, “that it’s not just a bunch of ski bums goofing around, but has major implications for our water supply, energy balance, and natural hazards.”
Marshall and his colleagues have traveled from Antarctica to Greenland to Alaska and all over the Rockies to “improve their ability to measure how snow is distributed across the landscape,” which, in turn, will help their understanding of snow avalanches, snow hydrology, and ice cores for long-term climate records.
One of the biggest issues in studying snowpack, Marshall says, is how the snow conditions change in a matter of hours and vary over such short distances.
“The variability leads to complicated problems,” he says, like predicting how much water an area will have each spring, and, he adds, how “backcountry skiers must constantly evaluate snowpack in space and time.”
One of Boise State’s largest projects is to develop methods for rapidly measuring snow over large areas. To do this, Marshall is working with heli-ski operation Alaska Rendezvous Heli Guides in Valdez to customize and improve their current radar system.
“We usually work with them in the first week before clients show up,” says Marshall. “The first time they visit a route for the season, the helicopter hovers over a knife-edge ridge, we get out, and then work with the guides to build a little 5-by-5-foot platform that they will later use when the clients show up.” Of course, it’s not all just business. “Stepping out of the helicopter while its hovering and instantly mountaineering on a knife-edge ridge looking 3,000 feet down to the valley gets the heart going,” he adds.
Marshall is also working with NASA on fine-tuning a remote sensing system from space and building a robot that will autonomously make radar measurements across the Greenland ice sheet and beam them back via iridium satellite phone.
So does Marshall’s research address the most pressing issue this winter, i.e. how much snow your favorite resort will have on any given weekend? “No, we cannot predict how the rest of the year will turn out snow-wise. Our group develops tools and techniques to improve our ability to measure the snow on the ground, not forecast future weather,” says Marshall. No matter. With all the extra time you’ve probably got on your hands this season due to a lack of snowfall nationwide, this is the perfect distraction for the geeky side of the snow-lover in you.