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Snow research at Boise State

From the single falling snowflake to the terrifying power of an avalanche, snow is something that Boise State researchers take pretty seriously. It’s no wonder when one realizes that winter snowfall is responsible for about 70 percent of Boise and Idaho’s water supply. Globally, the world depends upon snowpack and snow melt for everything from hydropower to agriculture production. Snow is an integral part of successful economies, ecology, the environment, and for Boise State, education.

“The Department of Geosciences at Boise State is one of the few places in the world with such a high concentration of snow scientists,” said geosciences Department Chair James McNamara. “In the last few years we have become a leading center of thought on snow in the environment. We have actual snow physicists who work on methods to measure and model snow, as well as snow-focused scientists in geosciences, biology, engineering, and other disciplines.”

Associate professor HP Marshall, John Kelly photo.

One such researcher is associate professor Hans Peter (HP) Marshall. In addition to being a full time geosciences faculty, Marshall also conducts snow research in the field all over the Western United States. Recently, he was awarded $1 million by the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory to advance snow monitoring using optical, microwave, acoustic and seismic techniques.

“Snow is a relatively new science. So a lot of the problems that we tackle are questions that a lot of people haven’t actually looked at before. What that means for students is that it’s much easier to make an impact than in some other fields that have been studied for hundreds and hundreds of years,” said Marshall.

With the $1 million grant, Marshall and his team are using infrasound, improving radar and optical techniques for remotely sensing how much water is stored as snow in the mountains, and measuring mechanical properties using seismic measurements to inform the Army’s vehicle mobility requirements in cold regions.

student and teacher look at device in snow
Geophysics student Jukes Liu and Marshall conducting snow research during helicopter flyover, John Kelly photo.

Marshall is also co-project scientist for the NASA SnowEx Mission. SnowEx is a five-year program that began at Boise State in 2017, and uses surveillance by helicopters and planes, coordinated with field work, to collect snow data such as snow depth, snow-water equivalency (how much water is in snow), snow crystal types and more. This data is collected through digging snow-pits, ground-based radar, remote sensing and light detecting and ranging (LIDAR).

“What we’re really finding is that the solution to the snow problem is going to require field measurements, remote sensing like the helicopter and the satellites that are timed to overpass our site, and combining with snow models. All three of those pieces are very critical.”

helicopter in flight
Helicopter flyover, John Kelly photo.

This year, Marshall and his students are also collaborating with a group of scientists from the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab, including Shad O’Neel and Eli Deeb, and with Silverhawk Aviation in Caldwell, to gain measurements of snow height using a LIDAR system on a R66 helicopter. Boise State’s proximity to Bogus Basin and snowy mountain ranges makes snow research more accessible, said Marshall, and offers students the opportunity to gain in-the-mountains field experience.

Geosciences doctoral student Maggi Kraft said that the opportunity to experience field research offers a whole new, meaningful perspective on the data because “You get to experience the different mechanisms of snow melt and snow accumulation and see it first-hand, which is very different than when you’re looking at the data inside.”

“We dig one [snowpit] in the open and one in the forest, and within the snow pit we measure the different layers of the snowpack, we look at the snow crystal types, as well as the size of the snow crystals. And then we measure the density of the snow, the snow temperature, and measure the liquid water content,” said Kraft.

students dig on snowy mountainside
Snow research at Lower Deer Point, John Kelly photo.

For students, experience collecting this critical data and working with regional and national institutions to advance the field of snow science is a once-in-a-lifetime scholarly opportunity.

“As an undergraduate student, I feel honored to work on such a large project such as this, working with NASA, different universities across the western United States, meeting and talking to other people with different backgrounds, different education systems. It really expands my knowledge and background and prepares me for the job market in the future,” said Boise State student Daniel Murray.

To learn more about NASA SnowEx, visit: