Mountains of learning
February 12, 2014
AVON — All life begins with water, and 75 percent of the water begins as snow in Colorado, Marc Von Stralendorff teaches his students.
Von Stralendorff has been teaching an Advanced Placement environmental science course at Battle Mountain High School for 10 years.
To drive the point home, he and some instructors from Walking Mountains Science School take about 30 students a year out of the classroom — way out of the classroom — for a three-day hut trip up Shrine Mountain.
They hike, they ski and they dig giant pits in the snow so they can study snow layers. Then the kids do all the cooking. Von Stralendorff smiles when he says that works out pretty well for him.
"I don't cook for them. They cook for me," he said.
Once the students have their snow pits dug, they study water content and other snow science. Some years, they don't have much snow water to study. This year they do.
"We're looking at snow water equivalencies, trying to find out how much water is up there," Von Stralendorff said.
They measure the density of the snow layers. It's density times depth, Von Stralendorff patiently explains.
The snow water equivalent is the amount of water contained in the snowpack. It would be the depth of water you would theoretically have if you melted the entire snowpack instantly.
For example, say there is a swimming pool filled with 36 inches of new powdery snow at 10 percent snow water density. If you could turn all the snow into water magically, you would be left with a pool of water 3.6 inches deep. In this case, the snow water equivalent of your snowpack would equal 36 inches times 0.10, which comes out to 3.6 inches. Von Stralendorff's students did the math, so you can trust it.
Von Stralendorff's class takes advantage of the natural surroundings.
As his students discover, that dry, light powder might be great for skiing, but the most water is found in the wet snow that falls in the spring.
"We like those wet spring snows that bring a lot of water to us," Von Stralendorff said.
Colorado's water is supposed to head downstream all the way to Mexico, but it's a rare year that it makes it that far, especially with the droughts California has been suffering the past few years.
"Los Angeles is looking at our snowpack this year," Von Stralendorff said.
When those 30 Battle Mountain students were on Shrine Mountain, the snowpack was about average. Since then, a series of storms has added several feet of wet snow to the snowpack. It's well above average, a welcome change to previous low-snow years.
Students also learn that the snowpack has insulating properties. If you need a little insulation to stay alive, a snow cave might help you survive. Lots of small creatures survive the harsh alpine winters by burrowing under the snowpack, Von Stralendorff said.
By studying how the layers of snow fit together, they also learn a little about the stability of the snowpack. It's not an avalanche course, Von Stralendorff said, but it's important information.
It all starts here
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) also keeps a close eye on snow, and their view is the same as those Battle Mountain students.
Most of the annual stream flow in the Western United States originates as snowfall in the mountains during the winter and early spring. As the snowpack accumulates, hydrologists estimate how much runoff we'll have when it melts.
Forecasts become more accurate as the winter winds down, mostly because we know how much snow is up there and how much might still fall.
However, regardless of the math that water users use to create their forecasts, we should be prepared to deal with less water than they think they'll get, the NRCS says.
So having given us all that qualifying language up front, the NRCS climbed right out on a limb and declared that the 2014 water year is off to a great start. Colorado saw more snow than normal in October and November and into early December. Statewide reservoir storage is also up, thanks mostly to all that rain in September.
"It is still early in the season and anything can happen, but if weather patterns persist, this could be a good year for water supply and recreation in Colorado," the NRCS said in its most recent report.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.