Over a hundred years ago, a Classics professor at UNR became fascinated with mountains, snow, and water.  When he wasn’t teaching German and Latin literature, fine arts, and art history, he spent time thinking about snow and how much water it contained.  Eventually, he gained international recognition for snow science. 

Dr. James Church created a “snow sampler” in 1909 and it is still in use today.  The device is relatively straightforward; a long, hollow metal tube that is stuck into the snow.  The tube is weighed with and without the snow.  The difference in weight is a measure of the snow’s water content.  Five to ten points along a “snow course” are measured, and an average is calculated. Find out more about snow courses here.  

Snow sampler in use at a snow course. Photo from National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Why is snow’s water content important?  Also called snow water equivalent, it is the liquid water contained in snow, or the amount of water released from snow when it melts.  In other words, a foot of what skiers call Utah “champagne powder” does not contain the same amount of water as a foot of “Sierra cement.”  The explanation is simple – Sierra snow has more water content, because we’re closer to the coast and it’s warmer than Utah, which makes the snow heavier.

Early on, Dr. Church recognized the connection between snowpack and the west’s water supply (see previous blog).  He set up a snow course on the top of Mt Rose (see map below) and started measuring.  Soon this practice spread across the west and the world.  By about 1940, April 1st was adopted as the day for annual measurements at snow course sites across the country.  Today the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) measures snow water equivalent at hundreds of sites across the nation.

Are measurements still taking place at Mt Rose? Yes! With metal tubes in the snow? Yes! Kind of. It’s more technical. Find out more in the next blog.

From National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) mapper.