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Geosciences Column: The science behind snow farming

Geosciences Column: The science behind snow farming

For roughly the last decade, some ski resorts and other winter sport facilities have been using a pretty unusual method to ensure white slopes in winter. It’s called snow farming. The practice involves collecting natural or artificially made snow towards the end of winter, then storing the frozen mass in bulk over the summer under a thick layer of sawdust, woodchips, mulch, or other insulating material.

Many winter sport destinations have adopted the practice. In preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sochi, Russia stockpiled about 800,000 cubic metres of human-made snow during the warmer season, enough snow to fill 320 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Despite the growing trend, there still is little research on snow farming techniques. Recently, a team of scientists from the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) and the CRYOS Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Switzerland examined the success of snow conservation practices and used models to estimate what factors influence covered snow. Their findings were published in the EGU’s open access journal The Cryosphere.

Why store snow for the winter?

The ski industry has been storing snow for many reasons. The practice is a way for winter sports facilities to accommodate training athletes, start ski seasons earlier, and guarantee snow for major sports events. Snow farming can also be seen as a way to adapt to Earth’s changing climate, according to the authors of the study. Indeed, research published last year in The Cryosphere, found that the Alps may lose as much as 70 percent of snow cover by the end of the century if global warming continues unchecked. Snow loss to this degree could severely threaten the $70 billion dollar (57 billion EUR) industry and the alpine communities that depend on ski tourism.

For some ski resorts, the effects of climate change are already visible. For example, in Davos, Switzerland, a popular venue of the International Ski Federation Cross-Country World Cup, winter temperatures have risen over the last century while snow depth in turn has steadily declined.

Snow heap study

The research team studied two snow heaps: one near Davos, Switzerland (pictured here) and another in South Tyrol. Credit: Grünewald et al.

To better understand snow conservation techniques, the research team studied two artificially made snow heaps: one sitting near Davos and another located in South Tyrol. Each pile contained approximately 7,000 cubic metres of snow, about enough ice and powder to build 13,000 1.8-metre tall snowmen. The piles were also each covered with a 40 cm thick layer of sawdust and chipped wood.

Throughout the 2015 spring and summer season, the researchers measured changes in snow volume and density, as well as recorded the two sites’ meteorological data, including air temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction. The research team also fed this data to SNOWPACK, a model that simulates snow pile evolution and helps determine what environmental processes likely impacted the snow.

Cool under heat

From their observations, the researchers found that the sawdust and chipped wood layering conserved more than 75 percent of the Davos snow volume and about two thirds of the snow in South Tyrol. Given the high proportion of remaining snow, the researchers conclude that snow farming appears to be an effective tool for preparing for winter.

According to the SNOWPACK model, while sunlight was the biggest source of snow melt, most of this solar radiation was absorbed by the layer of sawdust and wood chips. The simulations suggest that the snow’s covering layer took in the sun’s heat during the day, then released this energy at night, creating a cooling effect on the snow underneath. Even more, the model found that, when the thick layer was moist, the evaporating water cooled the snow as well. The researchers estimate that only nine percent of the sun’s energy melted the snow heaps. Without the insulating layer, the snow would have melted far more rapidly, receiving 12 times as much energy from the sun if uncovered, according to the study.

Images of the South Tyrol snow heap from (a) 19 May and (b) 28 October. The snow depth (HS) is featured in c & d and snow height change (dHS) is shown in e. Credit: Grünewald et al.

The researchers found that the thickness of the covering layer was an important factor for snow conservation. When the team modelled potential snow melt under a 20 cm thick cover, the insulating and cooling effects from the layer had greatly diminished.

The simulations also revealed that, while higher air temperatures and wind speed increased snow melt, this effect was not very significant, suggesting that subalpine areas could also benefit from snow farming practices.

In the face of changing climates and disappearing snow, snow farming may be one solution for keeping winters white and skiers happy.

References

Grünewald, T., Wolfsperger, F., and Lehning, M.: Snow farming: conserving snow over the summer season, The Cryosphere, 12, 385-400, https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-12-385-2018, 2018.

Marty, C., Schlögl, S., Bavay, M., and Lehning, M.: How much can we save? Impact of different emission scenarios on future snow cover in the Alps, The Cryosphere, 11, 517-529, https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-11-517-2017, 2017.

 

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: Snow and ash in Iceland

Imaggeo on Mondays: Snow and ash in Iceland

Featuring today on the blog is the land of ice and fire: Iceland. That title was never better suited to (and exemplified), than it is in this photograph taken by Daniel Garcia Castellanos in June 2013. Snow capped peaks are also sprinkled by a light dusting of volcanic ash. Dive into this post to find out the source of the ash and more detail about the striking peak.

The picture is dominated by a snowed mountain in Southern Iceland, captured in June 2013, three years after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. When Eyjafjallajokull erupted, it sent ash kilometers high into the atmosphere disrupting the air traffic in most Europe for weeks.

“This striking Icelandic landscape also inspired Tolkien’s fantasy in The Lord of the Rings,” explains Daniel, a researcher at the  Instituto de Ciencias de la Tierra Jaume Almera, in Barcelona.

Eyjafjallajokull is located in the Eastern Volcanic Zone in southern Iceland and the area photographed is among the youngest (less than 0.7 yr in age) and most active areas of Iceland, right on the contact where the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates meet.The black rock seen in the image is tephra – fragments of rock that are produced when magma or or rock is explosively ejected (USGS) – from the neighboring Torfajökull rhyolitic stratovolcanic system, know for its cone shaped volcanoes built from layer upon layer of lava rich in silica and consequently very viscous. The light-green colour consists of the ubiquitous Icelandic moss.

In the image, the remnants of winter white snow are dotted with fine grey ashes from the Eyjafjallajökull 2010 eruption (about 30 km to the south of this image). Years after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, the volcano still burns hot and its lighter ashes are still blown over southern Iceland providing this magical colors over the entire region.

Daniel’s adventures in Iceland didn’t stop at simply photographing stunning volcanic landscapes. He also had the privilege to see the inside of one of the volcanoes in the Eastern Volcanic Zone close up. Watch his descent into the Thrihnukagigur volcanic conduit over on his blog, Retos Terrícolas.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Annapurna snow avalanche

Imaggeo on Mondays: Annapurna snow avalanche

The Annapurna massif is located in an imposing 55 km long collection of peaks in the Himalayas, which behave as a single structural block. Composed of one peak (Annapurna I Main) in excess of 8000 m, a further thirteen peaks over 7000 m and sixteen more of over 6000 m, the massif forms a striking structure within the Himalayas.

Annapurna I Main, the tenth highest peak in the world, is towering at an impressive 8,091 m. Renowned for its difficult climbing conditions, it holds one of the highest fatality rates of the 8000+ peaks. October 2014 marked a particular dark period in the mountain’s climbing history when 39 trekkers were killed during severe snowstorms and avalanches while completing a popular hike circling Annapurna I.

Martin Struck, a PhD student at the University of Wollongong, Australia, captured this extraordinary photograph of a surging avalanche early one morning in October 2012. Martin visited the Annapurna massif as part of his Diploma project at the University of Potsdam about suspended sediment fluxes in the Kali Gandaki River which cuts the world’s deepest gorge through the Himalayas between the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri massifs. The snow avalanche careered down the ~35° sloping northeast flank of Tilicho himal, a peak only 10 km away from the Annapurna I summit.

“The avalanche is one of five I spotted that morning in the area. The tracks and runout zones of previous snow and/or dry snow avalanches are clearly visible in the image,” describes Martin.

He explains that rising morning temperatures triggered the avalanches, causing the failure of stable snow which had fallen on the night before.

The area is close to Tilicho Lake, located at about 4900 m above sea level, and one of many Himalayan glacial lakes which play a crucial role in the supply of water to the inhabitants of Nepal.

“Snow and glacial melt contribute approximately 10% to the annual discharge of the main Nepalese rivers, but are of significant important outside the monsoon season,” explains Martin.

Earlier on this year, a study published in the open access journal, The Cryosphere, found that if greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise, glaciers in the Everest region of the Himalayas could experience dramatic change in the decades to come. The glacier model used in the paper shows that glacier volume could be reduced between 70% and 99% by 2100. The findings have important implications for the future availability of water in the region: a significant decrease in glacial volume would have consequences for agriculture and hydropower generation. You can learn more about this research and it’s consequences in this Press Release: Glacier changes at the top of the world – Over 70% of glacier volume in Everest region could be lost by 2100.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Entering a frozen world

Dmitry Vlasov, a PhD Student and junior scientist from Lomonosov Moscow State University, brings us this week’s Imaggeo on Mondays. He shares his experience of taking part in a student scientific society expedition to Lake Baikal.

This picture shows icy shores of Lake Baikal – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world’s largest natural freshwater reservoir (containing about one fifth of Earth’s unfrozen surface freshwater). It is also the deepest lake on our planet (1,642 m).

The icy shores of Lake Baikal. (Credit: Dmitry Vlasov, via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The icy shores of Lake Baikal. (Credit: Dmitry Vlasov, via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The aim of the expedition was to do an eco-geochemical assessment of the environment in and around Ulan-Ude (the capital of Republic of Buryatia). Snow samples were collected all around the city to determine their chemical composition and the concentrations of different chemical elements present in the snowpack. We also studied the isotopic composition of snow to help find the sites where air masses form.

Weather-wise, we were lucky – according to locals this winter was a warm and snowy one. The temperature was (only!) -25 to -33 degrees Celsius. Times were tough when strong, cold and piercing winds froze our hands and faces.

To find out the impact of transport and industry on the snow’s chemical composition within the city, we took background snow samples at different distances and in and around it. One such area was set to the northeast of the city, close to the Turka and Goryachinsk settlements across the notch from Ulan-Ude. This photo was taken in that exact spot. It took about 2.5 hours to make the 170 km journey from Ulan-Ude by car, but we didn’t regret it. The scenery was amazing! The cover of ice over the lake sparkled bright blue, despite being exceptionally transparent. Because of the water’s choppy nature, ice on the Lake Baikal often cracks and billows to form a chain of miniature ice mountains, alternated with relatively smooth ice plains. I’d never seen anything like this before.

All the participants were very excited about expedition – it showed the students different sides of scientific life: work in rather hard weather conditions, analytical lab studies, route planning and of course the breathtaking beauty and outstanding power of nature.

By Dmitry Vlasov, PhD Student and junior scientist, Lomonosov Moscow State University

Acknowledgement:

The expedition was carried out with the financial support of the Russian Geographical Society and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (project № 13-05-41191 and project RGS “Complex Expedition Selenga-Baikal”).

Imaggeo is the EGU’s open access geosciences image repository. Photos uploaded to Imaggeo can be used by scientists, the press and the public provided the original author is credited. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. You can submit your photos here.