It's snowing hard outside. The wind is blowing from the north, and you are trying to make plans to go into the backcountry. You want the best snow, the least wind affected, fluffy white stuff. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports a chance of 1-3 inches of snow overnight, but with a glance out your window, you see 3 inches already. With webcams on every major ski resort website, a live report is within a click of a mouse. But what about those areas that don't have live video feeds? Those areas where the masses don't congregate?
How do you get current information about those areas, like say in North Fork or Logan Canyon?
The answer, SNOTEL sites.
At specific locations throughout the country, especially at the head of key watersheds, are SNOTEL sites.
In Utah, there are roughly 100 sites.
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service website that lists all of the SNOTEL sites on a map, "Standard sensors include snow water equivalent, precipitation and temperature. Enhanced sensors may include any or all of following: soil moisture, soil temperature, wind speed/direction, solar radiation, humidity, precipitation (tipping bucket rain gauge), or barometric pressure."
All of the sites in Utah have standard sensors.
The SNOTEL sites can be accessed online and the information is displayed with graphs, which are be broken down hourly, weekly and historically.
Once a month, NRCS scientists check the stations in person. Rain or shine, they venture into the backcountry. Some stations are deep in the woods, necessitating snowshoes, skis and/or snowmobiles.
The scientists manually test snow depth and density at and around the site. This information is used by hydrologists to determine the state's snow depth and water. They also check to see that the electronics are functioning properly and have no obvious damage.
These remote stations are fully independent. They use solar power and transmit live data using meteor burst communications (MBC) technology.
MBC utilizes the constant collision of meteors in the atmosphere, and using the ionized trails of these meteors, the SNOTEL sites can send information up to 1,400 miles away.
"So basically a signal is sent up from the SNOTEL site. ... It literally bounces off small meteorites that are coming through the atmosphere pretty much nonstop. And then that signal bounces back down and is collected by data collection sites around the western United States," said Chet Fitzgerald, a soil conservationist with the NRCS, while taking snowcore samples at the Garden Summit SNOTEL site off U.S. 89 near the Bear Lake Overlook. "So that's how they can have a site that is this remote that can actually transmit data without having something like a full-time satellite phone that would be on all the time."
As the snow piles up outside your window and you are starting to map out which backcountry area will be the easiest to access, the SNOTEL site is sending information hourly to the data collection sites.
You look at precipitation and temperature to determine which area may be the safest, while providing the best snow. You bookmark your chosen zones and go to sleep, with the understanding that your final decision will happen in the morning hours.
Besides assisting recreationalists with live information that helps with planning, SNOTEL sites are beneficial to society as a whole.
It gives hydrologists live information in regards to water content in key regions. From this, they determine the amount of water reservoirs can release during the winter months, by predicting spring runoff.
This affects recreationalists and farmers alike.
"It is actually really helpful for the citizens who live throughout the state," said Fitzgerald. "If a reservoir is nearing capacity, they may want to let water go because if they know there is a lot of water yet to come down, they don't want to have a situation where the reservoir could overtop. So not only is public safety involved, irrigation for farmers, as well as the secondary water systems for people who live in town ... (And) The Bear River Bird refuge is highly dependant (too)."
Hydrologists also use this information to project future weather patterns. For the past several years, Utah has been suffering from a severe drought. Because of such information, Ogden has issued water restrictions.
According to Randall Julander, snow survey supervisor with NRCS, the snowpack in the Bear River area is at 120 percent and the Weber areas at 100 percent of average. He said this is up from last year in these areas, which were only 68 and 65 percent, respectively, at this time last year.
Whether you venture into the backcountry during the winter months, irrigate in the spring, or fish the Weber River in the summer, as Northern Utah citizens, we can all benefit from SNOTEL sites.
The science is out there. Now all you gotta do is use it.
For an interactive map of all the SNOTEL sites in Utah, visit: http://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/SNOTEL/Utah/utah.html