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NASA's sense of snow

Published July 8, 2011 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

NASA has long pioneered the search for water on Mars and the moon, both as a tracer for ancient life and a resource to support the eventual arrival of human travelers. In late May, I was neck-deep in snow in the Rocky Mountains with scientists on a different NASA quest, following the water right here on Earth.

I traveled to a remote location 12,000 feet above sea level with a research team led by Tom Painter of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., across the snowpack of Utah and Colorado's Red Mountain Pass. We shoveled deep snow pits, in one day moving more than a ton of snow.

We were looking for layers of dust blown onto these high peaks from massive dust storms that now regularly sweep across the Mountain West.

Tom's research has shown that the dust blown onto mountain snowpack can dramatically change how fast the snow melts in springtime.

The dust absorbs more of the sun's rays, which makes the snow below melt faster and sooner. This makes a big difference to downstream communities that rely on snowpack for drinking water and agriculture.

NASA is working with Tom's team because we want to see if we can extend his measurements worldwide through data collected by our science satellites. Imagine if we could observe and understand the impact of dust on snowmelt and predict how much water would be lost and from where?

With that knowledge we would be able to devise precautionary measures to decrease the spread of windblown dust and its impact on scarce water resources.

This is just one part of NASA's efforts to "follow the water" on Earth and study our planet in all its complexity to benefit people here and globally.

One reason I headed into the Colorado snow pits was to see how this new area of research could be shared with the developing world. Through our SERVIR partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development, NASA is helping local decision makers make wise choices by giving them life-saving data from space on natural disasters and environmental conditions.

But NASA follows Earth's water for a bigger reason than just better management of local resources. Our interest is global.

Water and how it flows around Earth in all its forms — clouds, snow, ice, rainfall, vapor and seawater — is the engine that drives our climate.

If Earth's "water cycle" shifts in significant ways due to a changing climate, it can have major consequences for different regions: more or stronger extreme weather events, longer droughts, smaller glaciers, less snow cover or rising seas.

Understanding our vast, global water system is a grand scientific challenge in which NASA has long invested. Our scientists and engineers continue to push the boundaries of what we can observe about Earth with new sensors flying in space.

We launched the latest of these innovations June 9 from California: our Aquarius instrument riding on a spacecraft built by our Argentinian partners. Aquarius will gather extremely sensitive measurements of variations in the saltiness of the worlds' oceans, which will provide a key missing piece of the water-cycle puzzle about how oceans affect the global environment.

We'll need even more of these kinds of data and continued advances in remote sensing technologies to understand how our planet works and reacts to the things we do. It's a complex job, but NASA can do it, in the sky and on the Earth, if we keep investing our resources wisely to maintain and expand our extraordinary fleet of Earth observatories.

Lori Garver has been deputy director of NASA since 2009. She also worked at NASA from 1996-2001, serving as associate administrator for the Office of Policy and Plans.