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$4.8M to predict snowfall in Intermountain West

In a new $4.8 million research project funded by the National Science Foundation, faculty from the University of Utah are partnering with lead investigators from the University of Michigan and other universities to better understand how snowfall processes are impacted by complex mountainous terrain. The multi-institutional team will conduct the Snow Sensitivity to Clouds in a Mountain Environment (S2noCliME) Field Campaign during the 2024-2025 winter season in northwest Colorado’s Park Range, centered on the U’s unique research station, Storm Peak Laboratory.

A group of people wearing winter outerwear standing on snow in front of tall antenna-looking things.

PHOTO CREDIT: Melissa Dobbins

A group of scientists at the University of Utah Storm Peak Laboratory in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

The Intermountain West is experiencing warmer, drier conditions and declines in snowpack due to climate change, putting communities, water resources, industries like skiing, and sensitive ecosystems at heightened risk. Accurate prediction of future snowfall accumulation in mountains is critical but challenged by the variable effects terrain has on precipitation patterns.

“Mountain snowpack is a vital source of water for communities across the western states,” said Jay Mace, U professor of atmospheric sciences and a lead on the remote sensing components of the field campaign. “By deploying an integrated network of ground-based, airborne and satellite instruments, we can gain valuable insights into the chain of processes shaping snowfall, from large weather systems down to the microscale.”

The U’s Storm Peak Laboratory, a premier high-elevation atmospheric monitoring station in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, will play a central role. During the upcoming winter season, the field site will host multiple radar systems, precipitation sensors, cloud particle imagers and other specialized instrumentation provided by the U and partner institutions

Claire Pettersen, an assistant professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan, is the principal investigator of the project, leading the deployment of snow sensing equipment and multi-wavelength remote sensors at the midmountain site. We hope that our catalog will ultimately improve winter storm forecasts and tell western cities when to expect a drought because of insufficient snowpack,” said Pettersen.

The coordinated deployment brings together more than 30 cutting-edge instruments from five research universities. It aims to collect an unparalleled dataset documenting the impacts of orographic effects on snowfall from the broadest atmospheric scales down through the cloud microphysics. By pairing measurements of snowflake size and shape with radar measurements of clouds, the researchers will build a large catalog of data showing how storm systems change as they move over mountains, which will improve forecasts of snowfall and snowpack in these areas.

“This campaign gives us a rare opportunity to integrate specialized radars, balloon measurements, surface instrumentation and more into one cohesive study of snowfall formation processes over mountains,” said Atmospheric Sciences Professor Gannet Hallar, director of Storm Peak Laboratory and co-investigator of the S2noCliME project. “The impacts of declining snowpack are far-reaching for the economy and way of life in the West. This combined data will help advance our models and predictive capabilities.”

The S2noCliME project also includes scientists from the University of Washington, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Colorado State University and Stony Brook University.