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Scientists aim to improve Western snowfall, water supply forecasts with research project in Colorado

This is an image of a steel weather vane on top of a snowy mountain range overlooking a vast valley blanketed in snow on a blue sky day.
Courtesy Of Melissa Dobbins
A weather vane on the Park Range mountains overlooking the Yampa Valley in northwestern Colorado. As storms move over these mountains, the clouds interact with the topography and generate snowfall.

A new research project in the Mountain West aims to improve forecasts of snowfall, and estimates of how climate change will affect the region’s snowpacks and water supplies.

Next winter, research scientists from several institutions, including Colorado State University and the University of Utah, will converge in the Park Range mountains of northwestern Colorado.

Throughout the 2024-2025 winter season, the team will use radar technology and snow-sampling tools to measure the size and shape of snowflakes. Researchers will also use radar to detect how storm clouds change as they move over mountains and interact with the terrain.

Brenda Dolan, a Colorado State research scientist involved with the project, said collecting this precipitation and climate data is crucial.

“So we know as the climate gets warmer or changes, what we can expect in terms of snowpack and snowfall over a given season,” Dolan said. “Which, obviously, water resources is an important question in the West.

“Understanding when that snowfall is coming and how much snowfall there's going to be is kind of a difficult problem that this long-term field project should address.”

Dolan said the team’s research will not only give western cities and farmers better water supply estimates, it will also tell communities when to expect a drought. In the West, around 67% of the water in large reservoirs comes from snowmelt. What’s more, low levels of snowfall raises the risk of more severe wildfires the following summer.

The National Science Foundation is funding the $4.8 million project, led by the University of Michigan. The University of Wisconsin, University of Washington, and Stony Brook University in New York are also involved.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.