Indiana Jones ain’t got nothin’ on these scientists.
It’s no easy feat to measure winter snowpack at remote sites throughout the rugged West. Such measurements provide critical data for irrigation districts, cities and other entities that rely on it to forecast water supply for spring and summer. It’s also not always safe.
So every year, snow surveyors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service train and practice for worst-case-scenario situations, such as tending to an injury, detecting an avalanche, or spending the night in the freezing wilderness if needed.
“To try to mimic if you got broken down in the field,” said Mike Strobel, director of the conservation service’s national water and climate center and program manager of the service’s snow survey.
The “snow school” often takes place in Bend or Lake Tahoe because of the usually snowy conditions that give the surveyors a better practice site for a real-life situation. While the surveyors know how to respond to such situations, the practice session helps reinforce consistent responses.
“You train and retrain and retrain,” Strobel said, noting that surveyors take the weeklong course every three to five years. “It’s more of a confidence builder.”
The conservation service installs, operates and maintains weather station equipment to collect data on snowpack and climate throughout the West. The extensive network stems from a 1930s congressional mandate to measure snowpack and forecast water supply, according to the agency. The network includes both manual site checks and automated weather stations.
Surveyors seek to figure out the amount of water in snow, since it will wind up feeding the waterways that sustain irrigation, fisheries, hydroelectric facilities and cities’ drinking supplies, among other uses. The data can show whether conditions look above or below normal based on statistics stretching over a period of 30 years.
The agency’s surveyors have returned to the same sites during the same stretch of days in the same months every year for decades, building a reliable database of snow and climate-related information that can help show trends over time. Having long-term data gives more confidence to the patterns that emerge from it and can better inform decisions on water use and policy.
But getting that data isn’t easy.
The agency’s western region covers the entire West and some of the more than 1,000 sites where snow surveyors go can pose some of the harshest conditions.
They use skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles and helicopters to reach some spots. They carry sleeping bags, pads, first-aid material, flashlights, basic tools and other equipment — besides the tools they use to collect data, measure the snow’s depth, weigh it and check the moisture level of the soil beneath it. They also sometimes carry bear spray and, in Alaska, guns.
They carry transmitters to track their locations and there’s a protocol for checking in. But they need to know how to respond and survive if a snowmobile breaks down late in the day, for instance, or one member of a pair in the field suffers an injury, or snowy and windy conditions create a whiteout so that they cannot safely continue.
On Wednesday, surveyors from Arizona, Wyoming, Washington, Colorado and elsewhere built snow shelters at Wanoga Sno-park, where they planned to spend the night in single-digit temperatures. They snowshoed around their sites to compact the snow, then dug trenches several feet deep and carved out small caves, creating domes beneath the snow to sleep in.
Stan Janowicz, a forester and snow surveyor with the conservation service in Okanogan, Washington, has not been forced to spend the night at one of the remote stations he has checked over the past 24 years. But the training session helps surveyors grow more confident and comfortable in responding — without panic — if an accident occurs in the field, Janowicz said.
He noted the session’s reviews on avoiding hypothermia and dehydration — he has to force himself to drink water in cold, snowy weather, for instance — and on ways to detect conditions that could precede an avalanche. Reviews also cover how to try to save someone caught in an avalanche using the beacons that surveyors carry and that can switch from a transmitting signal to a search signal for those looking for a trapped partner.
Janowicz also noted that he always picks up tips from the training session.
“Practice, practice, practice,” he said. “You can do it.”
The surveyors also enjoy a lot of the activities involved in the work, like the hiking, snowmobiling and snowshoeing it entails. At the shelter-building session, one showed off an abominable snowman-style hat, others lounged in the deep snow cave trenches they’d dug, one pair built an actual igloo.
Strobel noted how many of the surveyors do similar activities — including hiking and snowmobiling — on their days off. He recalled some of his own favorite data collection efforts involving three-day horse trips in the Western wilderness.
“It’s fun and exciting work,” Strobel said. “It’s the best job in the world. It really is.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7812,