Snow sleuths: Researchers around the world join forces to investigate missing snow, improve water resources modeling

Brooke Fisher, University of Washington
December 20, 2022

By Brooke Fisher, University of Washington

Sublimation of Snow Project principal investigator Jessica Lundquist (University of Washington) in Gothic, Colorado. Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington

A single snowflake hadn’t yet fallen when a team of civil and environmental engineering snow researchers descended on a small town in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains this past fall. But that was intentional — they were preparing for the coming winter’s mission to answer a longstanding research question: What happens to snow after it falls?

The researchers are investigating a phenomenon known as sublimation, which is the transition of snow directly from a solid state into water vapor, skipping the liquid stage. This is similar to the behavior of dry ice, in which frozen carbon dioxide vaporizes. Currently the largest source of uncertainty in snow modeling, sublimation has the potential to be an important insight for water resources management, especially estimating future water reserves.

“Sublimation is an extremely hard thing to measure. Lots of people have tried and come to different conclusions,” says University of Washington Professor Jessica Lundquist, who is co-leading the Sublimation of Snow (SOS) project. “This will be the first time it’s been looked at with this level of detail in a mountain region.”

Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, the SOS project is led in collaboration with UW alumna Julie Vano (CEE Ph.D. ’13), research director for Aspen Global Change Institute. In addition to SOS, participating field campaigns are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s SPLASH project and the U.S. Department of Energy’s SAIL project. Also involved are the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Earth Observing Laboratory, the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (SLF), and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL).