By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer

Snowy mountainsClimatologists say they have a mostly poor understanding of snow and its relationship to water resources around the world. NASA recently launched space flights that may help illustrate what role snow plays in the availability of the Earth’s drinking water and water for agriculture and hydropower.

More than one-sixth of the world’s population relies on seasonal snow for water. In the American West, nearly three-quarters of the annual streamflow that makes up the water supply arrives as spring and summer melt from the mountain snow packs. But streamflow predictions are unreliable, which is why scientists are interested to learn more about what they call snow-water equivalent—the amount of liquid water contained in snow cover. Scientists use snow-water equivalent to estimate how much water will melt into mountain streams, rivers and reservoirs.

According to NASA, SnowEx, a multi-year research project, can show how much snow is on the ground at any given time and how much water it contains. SnowEx is sponsored by the Terrestrial Hydrology Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The air and ground campaign started this month (February) in western Colorado.

“This is the most comprehensive campaign we have ever done on snow,” Edward Kim, a remote sensing scientist at NASA Goddard and the SnowEx project scientist, says. “An army of nearly 100 scientists from universities and agencies across the U.S., Europe and Canada are participating. Our goal is to find and refine the best snow-measuring techniques and how they could work together.”

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