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NASA Helps Keep Tabs On Western Water


Thomas Painter, research scientist, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

BY ERIK HELLING -- An aircraft created by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratoryand outfitted with state-of-the-art sensors is providing the first comprehensive maps of the snowpack that provides water to the western United States. Scientists and resource managers plan to use the information to help inform decisions about water use.

Thomas Painter, a research scientist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says there’s concern about the snow-melt runoff from the Rockies dropping below the Southwest States’ demand. Painter explains that developing maps of the snowpack will help regulate this runoff to ensure we don’t waste the resource.

“It has become really important for us to understand that snow-melt water resource in the most detailed fashion possible. Not only for the water resource management, but also for the science that can inform that resource management,” said Painter.

Before developing their maps, NASA used snow courses to measure snowpack. Snow courses are football-field sized runways of snow that scientists plunge measuring sticks into to measure the water within the snow. Another device used to measure snowpacks is the “snow pillow”. Snow pillows weigh the snow on top of them and measure hourly weighing information. Despite being used for years, Painter admits that these devices can barely provide a picture of the area’s coverage.

“If you have a TV screen, if only four or five of the pixels on the screen were active in giving you information, you certainly would not have the full picture,” said Painter.

The technology, used for the first time this winter, was a huge success, according to Painter. He stresses that this technology is going to revolutionize managing water resources, and hopes that it becomes global.

“Being able to move to a space-born version of this is going to be very important for understanding water resources, understanding climate change, and giving us the ability to avert many crises around the globe.”

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