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24 March 2023

Snow Survey and Snow School in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, Montana


Written by: William Dokai


Although I have no background in hydrology or snow science, my internship as a Fish Biologist at the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is allowing me the opportunity to work alongside experts in other disciplines to broaden my experience. For instance, I was offered the opportunity to go on my first day of fieldwork since starting this position to help with a snow survey conducted by the hydrologists in the Helena office. Because the majority of precipitation in Montana falls in the form of snow, these surveys are useful for predicting the available amount of water for all user groups in the coming year. Snow surveys are used to forecast the coming year’s water supply by measuring the depth and density of snow at numerous standard transects year after year. These forecasts are used by state and federal agencies, as well as the public, to make decisions about water use that affect activities as diverse as fish and wildlife management, agriculture, flood control, hydropower generation, recreation, and municipal water supplies. In short, water is in high demand in the Western US, and information about the coming year’s runoff is useful to many user groups to plan for the coming season. For instance, the location we surveyed is within the Tenmile Creek watershed, which is one of the city of Helena’s main municipal water supplies.


We surveyed a site relatively close to the Helena office and were able to use a side-by-side ATV with snow tracks to get close to the site, and then used snowshoes to walk in the rest of the way. We surveyed 10 locations in a transect, and at each location we measured both the depth, and mass of the snow, which is used to calculate the percentage of snow volume that is actually water (a metric called snow water equivalent) at that time and location.

In addition to the snow survey, the next day I was also invited to participate in an outdoor education day called Snow School, where Forest Service employees engage with middle schoolers in short educational sessions about the outdoors. I was conveniently tasked to help with the snow measurement class, which put my newly learned snow water measurement skills to work. The other instructors and I talked with around 100 seventh graders, showing them the process of measuring the depth and density of snow and calculating snow water equivalent. We also explained the importance of measuring snow for water use decisions, and how the amount of available water could impact their day-to-day lives. The snow school participants seemed to enjoy being outside on a lovely sunny day and learning about snow. So did I, and while these experiences were well outside of my previous professional experience, it was nice just to be out of the office for a couple days in some beautiful terrain.

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