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by • April 24, 2017 • Highlights, Safety MattersComments (0)105

Researchers recruit citizen scientists for Alaska snow observations

Katreen Wikstrom Jones looks at a snow block during a course.  Photos courtesy S. Carter/ Alaska Avalanche Information Center.

Katreen Wikstrom Jones looks at a snow block during a course. Photos courtesy S. Carter/ Alaska Avalanche Information Center.

In Alaska’s far north, Gabriel Wolken and Katreen Wikstrom Jones with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Climate & Cryosphere Hazards Program are on a mission to amass an army of citizen scientists – ordinary people out recreating, traveling, working and living in backcountry regions of Alaska. The goal is to uncover the mystery of how much water is stored in the mountains in the form of snow, and the potential impact it will have on our lives once it melts.
“Predicting and understanding variability in water run-off is important because of the effects it has on snow avalanche hazards, water resources, ecology, fisheries, tourism, and the impacts of a changing climate”, explains Wikstrom Jones.
To accomplish this lofty goal they need to measure the depth of snow across a broad swath of Alaska.
“The remote sensing tools and models we are using now are only well-informed estimates,” Wikstrom Jones said. “In order to validate the data, we must have ground truth points, which will require measuring snow depths across vast, complex terrain, and this requires a huge effort that we can’t do alone. This is where our recruited citizen scientists come into play.”
Wikstrom Jones said there is often a disconnect between communities and the work scientists do.
“We want to reach out and get citizens involved,” she said. “By contributing information that will help us find critical answers, this project will be a great way to get people directly involved with science.”
The formal name for this project is “NASA Citizen Science Community Snow Observations,” or NASA CSO. It’s a collaborative effort between the Alaska Department of Natural Resources – Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys, University of Washington State, Oregon State University and United States Geological Survey, and in partnership with Mountain Hub.

A group of students checks their gear during the Instructor Training Course. Photos courtesy S. Carter/ Alaska Avalanche Information Center.

A group of students checks their gear during the Instructor Training Course. Photos courtesy S. Carter/ Alaska Avalanche Information Center.

Participants are asked to probe snow depths and take photos of the snow surface, and log the data into Mountain Hub. The Mountain Hub app is free for download. When a measurement is logged, the app tags the geographical location of the measurement, even when there is no cellphone reception. The project collaborators will then have access to all the data points and will use this information to verify the snow depths that they receive from modeled snow distributions based on aerial and satellite remote sensing surveys.
It does not matter if you travel on skis, snowboard or on a snowmachine as long as you pull out your probe and make a measurement in the snow. Wikstrom Jones said it’s important that everyone realize ALL contributions matter, no matter how small.
“A remote sensing derived image without ground-truth points is like a tent tarp without tent poles,” she said. “Without real data measured on the ground, we cannot validate the image (secure the tent). The more probe strikes you put in the ground and submit to Mountain Hub, the better we can identify error areas and make sure that the remote sensing products give us an accurate estimate of snow distribution. We don’t want this to be a burden on anyone, but rather a fun, engaging way to advance science to benefit communities. Our idea is that if people are out recreating and traveling in the backcountry anyway, why not add this small task to their routine? No special trip or mission needed.”
In order to incentivize people to participate in the project, there will also be prizes to win from partnering sponsors.
Snow represents one of the biggest gaps in scientists’ understanding of Earth’s water resources. This project will help fill in some of those gaps if enough citizen scientists participate and provide the data needed to validate the information collected through remote sensing products.
Understanding and measuring the impacts on the environment is the only way we can predict, plan and prepare for what will ultimately result from weather and a changing climate.
If you would like to learn more or get involved visit www.nasacso.org.

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