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A NASA research plane passed over a patch of land in central Montana four times last winter in an effort to gather data on how snow falls and collects in the prairie.

On the ground — at Montana State University’s Central Agricultural Research Center in Moccasin, Montana — researchers and students were gathering measurements throughout the windy winter in a partnership with NASA.

The research was a part of NASA’s SnowEx program, a five-year project designed to figure out what snow pack qualities, like density and water content, can and cannot be measured from space.

While a lot of people might associate snow with recreation, Eric Sproles, a snow hydrologist with MSU and lead of the project in Montana, said it’s much more than that.

“Snow is an incredibly important resource,” Sproles said. “… It’s very hard to find anything in our social, environmental and economic systems that don’t point back to water in some way. And in Montana, that’s snow.”

Snow can also help keep the planet cooler by reflecting radiation from the sun instead of absorbing it, Sproles said. Measuring how much snow is on the ground from space can also help scientists understand water resources around the world.

The SnowEx satellite will use a synthetic aperture radar sensor that uses technology similar to microwave frequencies to infer snow properties like depth and water content.

NASA’s goal is to put a satellite into space that is focused on collecting data about snow around the world by 2030, Sproles said.

Before that can happen, Sproles said there’s decades of legwork and testing that needs to go into the satellite, including understanding what qualities of snowpack in different areas can and cannot accurately be measured from above.

That’s where Sproles and his class came in.

Starting in October 2020, he and about 10 students began setting up instruments at MSU’s Central Agricultural Research Center with the intention of monitoring and measuring snowfall throughout the winter.

While the plane was making its four passes from overhead in the winter, Sproles and his students were collecting detailed measurements of the snow of “things that would show up (on the plane’s data) but that would be hard to interpret unless you have on the ground first hand knowledge,” he said.

By turning the research project into a class, it allowed students to gain hands-on experience collecting rigorous data, Sproles said. The students also wrote two blogs and created a video that NASA published.

The site in Montana was funded for a year with a $177,000 grant from NASA with the hopes it will be renewed for future years.

The SnowEx program recruited six sites in the Mountain West to collect snowpack measurements, with Montana’s site being the only prairie location.

“A lot of work has been done on mountain snowpack and ice but not so much on prairie snow,” Sproles said.

While mountain snowpack might vary in depth by a couple inches, the snow in the prairies is extremely variable in depth.

“You see a whole lot of variance because of the wind,” he said. “… I figured if it snowed four inches up there, there would a four inch blanket but in some places it was five feet deep and in other places it was bare.”

Not only were Sproles and his team collecting hard data for NASA, but they also made concrete discoveries that can be helpful for farmers in the area.

The researchers found that if farmers keep crop stubble, like longer wheat stalks, it collects more blowing snow than if it had been barren ground. This can help farmers collect more snowfall and moisture during the winter, Sproles said.

“It also is science that is working for Montanans as well,” Sproles said. “That doesn’t go unappreciated, and I think that’s something that’s really valuable and really holds true to the land grant mission.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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