Father of snow science: The legacy that lives on more than a century later
In California and other parts of the West, the fresh water that is provided through snowpack provides clean drinking water, renewable forms of energy and a healthy ecosystem, and one man is responsible for the way the water in that snowpack is measured, even more than 100 years after he introduced the method.
"Meteorologists use snow-to-liquid ratios frequently during the winter season when determining accurate snowfall amounts," AccuWeather Meteorologist Brett Rossio said. "It helps us more accurately forecast precise snowfall totals."
The process of measuring water content in snowpack was invented by professor James E. Church and dates back to the early 1900s and the "Lake Tahoe Water Wars," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
A photo of James E. Church, who was labeled the 'father of snow science' for inventing the first tool for measuring snow-water equivalent, taken in 1920. (Photo/University of Reno, Nevada)
At the time, homeowners surrounding Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada were at odds with each other over when dam operators should release water from the lake.
Residents living on the banks of Lake Tahoe routinely faced destruction to their property as a result of flooding when the snow began to melt, and they wanted the operators of the dam to release water earlier to prevent the flooding. In contrast, residents living upstream feared that releasing the dam earlier would leave them with a dry spring and summer.
Church realized that if he were able to somehow measure the amount of water content in the snow, he would be able to determine when the dams would need to be released to efficiently serve everyone's needs and ultimately solve the conflict between the residents living at different points around Lake Tahoe.
At this point, he had his plan, but there was no such invention that was able to measure water content in snowpack -- he had to invent it himself.
Despite creating his invention more than a century ago, the design was so good it is "nearly indistinguishable" from what people use to measure the water content of snow in the modern day, according to the NRCS.
In 1908, Church also established snow courses when he decided to compare his snow-water measurements to the fluctuating levels of Lake Tahoe. The method quickly became popular and spread throughout the western United States.
Snow courses are designated areas, typically an open field, where snow surveyors can take measurements. Having a specified area for the measurements allows the surveyors to be more consistent with measurements.
Class picture from the first snow school held in 1950. (Photo/NRCS)
Information Officer for the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) Chris Orrock said the ability to measure snowpack each year provides the state with the ability to compare the measurements to those of any other year prior.
"Especially in California, we see the extremes," he told AccuWeather. "And what we've seen especially over the last couple of years is an extreme."
Orrock explained that even just month to month, the state of California is seeing extremes in opposite directions back to back. For example, December 2019 was the wettest December California's DWR has seen in 10 years. Just two months later, February 2020 ended up being the driest February on record for the state.
"We're seeing these giant roller-coaster swings from wet to dry and back again," Orrock said. This year and last have been particularly dry for California. He said the 2020 and 2021 timeframe is the second driest two-year period in California's recorded history.
The DWR conducts its fourth manual snow survey at Phillips Station snow course in El Dorado County on April 1, 2021. (Photo/California Department of Water Resources)
"Normally, when the snow starts to melt, we see it roll into our rivers and streams and flow down to the reservoirs," he said. "Well, this year because the ground is so dry, we're seeing a lot more and a very high percentage of it absorbing into that dry ground and not making it into the rivers and streams for water usage."
To cut down on water usage when it is scarce, the DWR works with local farmers and ranchers to figure out ways they can limit unnecessary water use.
Residential water use is a small portion of the overall water supply, but residents of the state still chip in during droughts by making small adjustments to daily activities, such as not running sprinklers, dishwashers and washing machines every day, by taking shorter showers and turning off the faucet when brushing teeth or shaving.
"We learned a lot [of] lessons from the last drought," Orrock said. "And the residents of California in the last drought really stepped up."
According to Greg Fall, a physical scientist for the National Weather Service's Office of Water Prediction, innovation in snow survey information is not over.
"We will be incorporating snow survey information in the future into something called the National Water model, which is sort of a continental scale effort to perform water prediction," he explained.
"Furthermore, we're hoping that new developments in radar technology and in LIDAR technology will also be able to provide us with new methods that can be operationalized."
Church's invention changed life for the residents surrounding Lake Tahoe, but his contributions did not end there. Church later traveled the world as the leading snow survey consultant, guiding a group of scientists who learned from him and were referred to as the "Church Boys."
The Church Boys became the first, but certainly not the last, generation of snow surveyors.
For the latest weather news, check back on AccuWeather.com. Watch the AccuWeather Network on DIRECTV, Frontier, Spectrum, fuboTV, Philo, and Verizon Fios. AccuWeather Now is now available on your preferred streaming platform.and Verizon Fios.Report a Typo
Top StoriesMore Stories