A Science for Everyone, Community, Meteorology

With the April Run We Could Make Solid Comments on Snow Pack

My last year of snow surveys – 40 some years ago – was, in some ways, the hardest one. Jay Penney was out on medical leave with congestive heart failure, Tom Engel had transferred to Phoenix, and I was handling both the Flathead and Kootenai drainages with help from the Forest Service. I can’t say enough good about those guys – over six months, I’d meet a new sidekick daily, few that I’d work with twice, and only one screwed up a snowmobile – and I could still drive it out without a ski (the old Alpines had only one ski, and it didn’t take much of a blunder in reverse to break it off).

In April I could confidently comment on the status of the snowpack. Then, telemetry was new. Today, we have a website and the graph does a good job of showing how the snowpack data gets a lot more solid at the end of March.

This next graph does a great job of showing why the measurements are in snow-water equivalents instead of just the depth of snow.  The green peaks show individual snow storms, and how quickly the snow settles from the fluffy snowflakes.

So where are we?  As of 04/03/21, these are the numbers.

Snow WaterPercent of Average
Stahl Peak27.0 inches78 %
Grave Creek11.2 inches81 %
Banfield Mountain13.7 inches77 %
Hawkins Lake20.8 inches84 %
Garver Creek 8.8 inches96 %
Poorman Creek29.5 inches83 %

If I were running the numbers, I’d say we’re on the light side of normal – but it isn’t my call. It is interesting to note that none of my measurements are left in the 30-year average.

Community

Snow Pack on the light side of average

45 years ago, it took a week’s effort on a Ski-doo Alpine to get the data I can download in 10 minutes. We were high-tech then – two tracks and a single ski on each snow machine, and clockwork powering the recorders that kept track of the water equivalent setting on the snow pillow. Now there are fewer stations – and the missing Bald Eagle Peak data reminds me of the winter climbs up the mountain, carrying the heavy sampling tubes, on snowshoes. Probably the hardest work of all, and that data collection no longer maintained.

The simple description of the snowpack is that it is a bit lower than average, but next month will provide enough data for the NRCS hydrologist to start projecting data. We always tried to have the measurements done for the first of the month, so I looked on January 31. The ten-minute download from the places I once spent the better part of a week getting to is:

Water EquivalentPercent of Average
Banfield Mountain10.4 inches87%
Hawkins Lake15.5 inches96%
Garver Creek 7.1 inches103%
Stahl Peak20.7 inches89%
Grave Creek8.6 inches81%
Poorman Creek17.1 inches75%
Bear Mountain30.2 inches82%
Hand Creek6.0 inches81%
Noisy Basin23.0 inches90%

To get to the data – and the map – you just click https://www.nwrfc.noaa.gov/snow/ .  It also provides elevations of the sites so you can get a great idea of how the winter snow is up high.  Making the data so readily available makes hydrology a science for everyone.

Community

Measuring Snow is Easier Now

In the mid-seventies, I would start the week of snow surveys by leaving home a little before 7:00 am, meeting Jay Penney at Grave Creek, then snowmobiling up to Stahl Peak, Weasel Divide and then catching the Grave Creek on the way down.  After that it was a week of motel living as we would sample snow courses four more days, ending with Banfield Mountain.  Later in the decade, it would be 5 days in the Kootenai drainage, then 5 more in the Flathead.  By the end, we were going in by helicopter.

Forty and more years later it’s a lot easier.  The snow pillows are attached to improved versions of the telemetry we pioneered, and solar-powered batteries have replaced the clockwork scrolls that once monitored the pillows 24/7.  (A pillow is a bladder filled with antifreeze that is pressed upward in a well as more snow sits on it, and down as the snow melts.)

Today, there are fewer sites – and all it takes to check the snow depth is this web address: https://www.nwrfc.noaa.gov/snow/   It leads to a map, where you can click on a dot, read the snow/water equivalent, and learn the percentage of normal.  For example, as I write this, Stahl Peak shows 17.6” of snow/water equivalent, and is 103% of average.  Grave Creek matches the long-term average with 7.3 inches.  Hawkin’s Lake shows 110% of the long-term average with 12.8.  Give the site a try – we can all know how much snow is in the mountains, without leaving the living room. I thought it was easier for us with snowmobiles than our predecessors who did all the work on skis and snowshoes – but it is a whole lot easier now