Snow study takes flight

A plane flying over a snow pack
A plane flying over a snow pack
Global Futures

Research into remote snowpacks unveils insights into climate change, water resource management and the future of our planet

A research team led by Dr. Richard Kelly, a professor in Geography and Environmental Management at Waterloo, uses a novel radar-based technology to provide more insight into snowpacks and their implications for climate change, water resource management and hazard prediction.

Snowpacks form in cold regions and high elevations, accumulating due to layers upon layers of snow. As they melt, snowpacks serve as vital water resources - feeding streams, rivers and reservoirs.

-We are seeing the snow season shortening, especially in spring, with earlier melt dates each year. Uncertainty remains regarding the snow mass in a catchment area and its annual variations,- Kelly says. -Are we experiencing average, increased or decreased snow mass compared to the norm? These are the big questions we aim to address.-

Kelly’s research focuses on understanding the dynamics of snow, not only in terms of its location but also in estimating its mass, referred to as snow water equivalent (SWE).

While traditional ground-based systems and models have been valuable, estimating the mass of snow in different landscapes remains a challenge. Kelly’s team is advancing the use radar-based technology to provide scalable coverage and accurate measurements of snowpacks and their SWE.

The amount of snow has significant ramifications for climate change, particularly in terms of its reflective properties which mirrors the sun-s rays back into space causing a naturally occurring cooling effect. Moreover, accurate measurements on the density and type of snow are important for water resource management, especially in remote areas where traditional measurements prove difficult. Knowing the characteristics of the snow allows for more precise predictions of water release during melting, helping to assess potential water availability, plan for water usage and mitigate risks related to flooding or water scarcity in these regions.

Kelly is involved in two major projects, one in collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, focusing on satellite-based observations, and another using his novel airborne imaging radar system in conjunction with the Alfred Wegener Institute and their Polar 5 research plane.

-The work we’re doing with the Alfred Wegener Institute and their aircraft is really developing that proof of concept and enhance the precision and accuracy of our scientific approach so we could deploy this technology further down the line using satellites in the future,- Kelly says.

The Polar 5 aircraft project aims to estimate not only the location of snow but also its mass at a local scale, providing valuable insights for various sectors and stakeholders including Environment Canada and the Canada Space Agency, local and provincial jurisdictions and private industry.

-We have accurate highly localised historical data available from weather stations and human-based measurements, but we need for more widespread estimates of SWE,- Kelly explains.

Understanding snow dynamics is crucial for managing water supply, agriculture, industrial processes and tourism. Furthermore, the changing snowfall and melting patterns directly affect climate change research and hazard prediction. In short, snowmelt can cause flooding, but it can also recharge ground water, which is increasingly used for water supply.

Kelly emphasizes the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the research, involving multiple institutions. -This is a community effort, we have support from several federal government agencies and research colleagues from University of Toronto, Université de Sherbrooke, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and University of Guelph,- he says.

Kelly’s spearheading work not only aims to address current challenges and questions but also opens new avenues for understanding the complex dynamics of snow science on a global scale with real-world applications for our collective sustainable future.
Jordan Flemming