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JPL uses GPS data to track Sierra snowpack

A High Sierra icon - Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak, towering over Ediza Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. I'd passed near here a few years ago, charging down the JMT, but I didn't take the time to hike up the side trail to see this gem. 

I felt like a real outdoor photographer this trip - packed the big-boy 2.8 lens, new tripod and ball-head, filters, etc. Didn't make much off a difference though - the mosquitos trumped everything.

What I thought was going to be quiet, contemplative photography at dawn turned into a run and gun, shoot-and-slap session. Anyone awake on the other side of the lake must have been amused at my antics - swearing and scratching, spaz-dancing, shaking my fists at the sky, running and waving my tripod around...the bugs were bad.

And just when you think things can't get worse, they do. More on that later.

Photo via Steve Dunleavy via Flickr Creative Commons
A High Sierra icon - Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak, towering over Ediza Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have found one more tool to help monitor California's water supply during this drought year. They’re using GPS to measure the weight of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

The JPL team looked at data from dozens of GPS receivers. They compared the ground level when the snowpack was at its largest to the level when much of the snow had melted away.

The earth sags in places where the snowpack is heavy so the difference in height allowed them to deduce just how much water had been stored there.

The Sierra Nevada snowpack is one of the most important sources of water for the state and scientists and officials pay close attention to its size. JPL already tracks it using images from airplanes and space satellites and state officials physically survey the snow at several locations.

But project leader Donald Argus says the benefit of GPS is that it provides a constant real-time measure that covers the entire mountain range and it’s more accurate than leading computer models.

"I don’t know if there’s a comprehensive estimate like this," he said. "The network is already out there of GPS receivers so we can use it right away."

He hopes water officials in California can apply the measurement to plan for water scarcity, track groundwater levels in the Central Valley, and even make hydroelectric power generation more efficient.