Decades-old snow diaries tell storied history of Central Sierra's Snow Lab

An old building in Soda Springs is rooted in deep history and houses snow diaries that are over 77 years old. 

This passage from March 1946 describes a snow hike with vivid clarity.

"Hiked up to the top to get our bearings, laid out snow course number six and took samples, and arrived back at the lab at 16:00."

That lab, which is currently managed by UC Berkeley, is the Central Sierra Snow Lab.  It first opened its doors in 1946. Snowfall records span numerous and even predate the lab by many years.

"There are very few records around the world that are as long as what we have here on Donner Summit in terms of the yearly total snowfall and max snow depth," said Lead Scientist Andrew Schwartz. "The records up here actually go back to 1878 and come up to present. So that really allows us to understand what is happening with our climate and where we are going in the future."

Researchers live and work in a building that shows some age, near Donner Ski Ranch and Sugar Bowl ski resorts. The kitchen is just steps away from the field experiments. Schwartz lived in the lab for two years. He will never forget the amazing snow totals from last winter.

"Last year was a remarkable year to live at the lab," said Schwartz. 

"We received just under 63 feet of snow. The lab, because it has a walk-out basement, is roughly three stories tall, and at its absolute deepest last winter, you could actually ski into the third-floor windows," he said.

The large towers in the back area are the standout and are coated with over 70 powerful instruments that are fueling ongoing research.

"What we are really trying to do is to develop technologies and science that can then be implemented by water managers and water organizations around California and the western United States to make sure that we are better managing our water," said Schwartz.

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) has a close relationship with the lab, and they lean heavily on science to help boost their understanding of snowmelt and improve runoff forecasts.

"It is really a living, breathing outdoor laboratory…in a really old historic building on top of that," said David Rizzardo of the DWR. "The advances in technology that are coming out of there are fascinating."

Those advancements rely on a large array of instruments and are equipped to capture key measurements this winter. A specialized temperature sensor measures how much heat is being transferred to the snowpack by the wind. A tube, hanging off the side of a tower, emits a pulse of sound that travels to the snow and bounces back to determine snow depth.

Another experiment will be used to measure water depth.

Shaun Joseph is an intern from the University of Nevada, Reno. He is utilizing the creek behind the lab as a test bed.  He is installing sensors in the creek to see how it fluctuates with the changing snowpack this winter.

"With that data, we are going to monitor what the water level is at now and what it will be before and after the snowmelt," said Joseph. "So we’re trying to see how much the water will go up and then come back down."

"With all of the advancements, there are still some big questions for these snow researchers. We’re engaging in a lot of projects that measure the temperature of the snowpack," said Schwartz. "One of the big unknowns for our forecasting capabilities for our water resources is what the snowpack temperature is. Because that tells us a lot about how much energy needs to go into it to get it to melt."

We may be getting closer to answering those unknowns as new storms approach the Sierra this upcoming winter.

More data and live images from the Central Sierra Snow Lab can be found here. To support the lab, you can purchase Central Sierra Snow Lab apparel by clicking here.