Understanding Sierra Nevada Snowmelt

During our winter programs, hundreds of students come to Donner Summit to study the snow-covered slopes in many different ways. We’re grateful for the opportunity to help these students understand that snowpack and snowmelt not only impact us in winter, but have a much larger impact overall.

Did you know that melting Sierra snow provides between 1/3 and 1/2 of California’s water supply? We wanted to share with you some of the resources our students use to understand how snowmelt impacts us.

Article: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About California’s Sierra Snowpack

Satellite Images of Crowley Lake before and after a major snowstorm in January 2019

Here’s an excerpt from this article:

Most of California’s precipitation comes during the cold, wet season when the crops and forests don’t need as much water,” Bales explains. He notes that farmers use 80 percent of the state’s water supply. “[They] need a lot of water in the summer, when there’s very little or no precipitation.”

And that’s where the snow comes in. Its natural ability to store water is why the Sierra snowpack is often referred to as California’s “frozen reservoir.” As spring sets in, the snowpack begins to melt. Water that’s not absorbed into the ground, called“runoff,” trickles into mountain streams, which feed rivers and eventually aqueducts and reservoirs, where it can be stored for use throughout the dry season.

So timing is everything when it comes to the melting of the snowpack.

“We want the runoff to be as late as possible, as close to when we need it as possible,” Bales says.

Typically, that runoff begins in April, and in wet years, it can continue to flow through August, according to Bales. But in years with less precipitation, and therefore less accumulation of snow, the runoff can wind down as early as May. That leaves farmers with less reserves for those dry summer months.

For more, read the full text of this article from KQED Science.

Video: Sierra Nevada Snowpack & Snowmelt

Here’s a video we use to help students understand California’s water supply as it relates to snowmelt.

Bay School Winter 2020 Program Recap

This past week students from the Bay School came to the Clair Tappaan Lodge on Donner Summit to create original research projects around snow science in the Sierra Mountains. This trip not only kicked off their field intensive course on California ecology but also gave the students hands-on experience studying the source of over half the state’s drinking water. In between collecting data for their research projects, students also had fun sledding and learning to cross country ski on the trails around the lodge.

“My favorite part about this trip was the group activities such as snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and sledding down hills. The organized group activities were really fun and nice. I also loved the freedom of choosing your own project and going on experiments walks without adults. Thank you!” – Phoebe

Here are a few highlights from the groups’ research projects:

  • Two research teams investigated amounts of particulate matter in the snow to better understand how human activity can affect snow albedo and melt rates. They found that snow with higher levels of particulate matter was warmer and denser. 
  • A group of students interested in the bright green poisonous Wolf Lichen surveyed the different types of trees in the area to find out which tree species offered the best lichen habitat. They found that Red Fir trees had the highest amounts of Wolf Lichen, likely due to it’s heavily crevassed bark. 
  • Another set of research teams focused on how the snowpack changes with altitude as snowfall in the Sierra is often dependent on elevation. They covered lots of ground to see how snow temperature and density changed with elevation around Donner Summit. They found snow at lower elevations was warmer, denser, and shallower in depth. 

Headwaters team of scientists had a great time with this group in the snow and was especially impressed by the caliber of their presentations at the end of the trip. You can check out all of the groups’ presentations here. In addition to learning about the role snow plays in the California water cycle, students also gained valuable presentation skills and got to experience first hand what field-based science involves. Based on their survey data several of these students developed a greater interest in the sciences. Between pre and post-program surveys, the percentage of students who reported being interested in a science-related career increased by 25%. 

A special thank you goes out to Tahoe Donner XC for donating rental snow shoes and the Auburn Ski Club for donating rental skis for the student to explore with during this trip.

SWOPE Students Work With Bird Feeders

As our fall programs begin to wrap up we wanted to share one special program with you. Students and teachers at the SWOPE Middle School of Reno, NV are using bird feeder systems to create projects around bird adaptation and natural selection. While we love using bird feeders as an experimental system, the special component of this program is the teachers’ leadership. One of the big goals Headwaters has is to go beyond strong student learning experiences and support teachers being able to lead these research projects on their own. This fall marks the third year Headwaters has worked with these SWOPE science teachers. During this years’ program, teachers were able to lead large parts of the program without Headwaters even being in the room. Our instructors come in primarily to give feedback and support on when a lower student-teacher ratio is needed. 

Let’s talk a closer look at the really neat projects these SWOPE students and teachers are conducting.

The goal of this program is that students investigate how adaptations and genetic traits can increase some individuals’ probability of surviving and reproducing. To do this their teachers hung up bird feeders all around their school and helped students ask their own original science questions about how birds find enough to eat and avoid getting eaten during the harsh Reno winters. The student research questions ranged from “Do birds preferentially eat different types of foods on different days?” to “How does the location of the bird feeder, in open or tree areas, affect rates of visitation?” and “Will the ratio of birds observed at the feeder to birds near the school but not at the feeder change through the months of November and December?”

Once students had come up with their own original scientific questions with their teachers, Headwaters instructors helped them design and test their experiments. Over the rest of November and December, students and their teachers will be collecting data on to test their research questions. In mid-December, Headwaters instructors will come back to help with data analysis and discussion of the groups’ scientific findings.

We are excited to return to these classes in December and will share the results of the student experiments with you then. Between then and now we wanted to thank the many partners that have made this 3-year program series possible. Your support has allowed us to provide great learning opportunities to over 900 students and more importantly given a set of Washoe County science teachers a toolbox of teaching strategies to continue using when Headwaters moves on to working with the next school in need. Thank you to Silver Sage Center for Family Medicine, the Teichert Foundation, and the many community members who supported this program through the Headwaters Dinner for Two Anywhere in the World Raffle for making this program possible!

To learn more about making your own bird feeder, check out an older blog post here!

Barrett Middle School’s Donner Summit Trip

We had the pleasure of working with 100 students from Sacramento’s Barrett Middle School, and bringing them to Donner Summit for a field research day. These students began with an in-class reading and research designing day, where they came up with some creative research projects and questions like:

-How many birds live in a forested area compared to next to water?
-Are there more insects near the water or near the trees/forest area?
-How does moisture affect the size and diversity of plants?
-How does the temperature of water effect the amount of organisms in it?
-How does water quality affect the number of macro-invertebrates in an area?
-How does the temperature of the water affect the population of the fish?

On Donner Summit, students had access to both a forested area and a large meadow as well as a stream within their field site. They split into groups based on their study topic, with different groups studying fish, water quality, soil, or insects. They were able to explore a variety of diverse environments, collect and analyze data, and later form it into a research presentation.

To finalize their research, students presented their findings to one another in class, solidifying what they’d learned during the trip.

A special thank you goes out to teacher Lori Sindel-Wawro for working so hard to find funding for this program! This program was funded through the McCarthy Dressman Grant.

Urban School students present at Celebrate Science

On Oct. 20, students and parents gathered for Celebrate Science San Francisco, an evening of research presentations. This group is from Urban School, and studied the riparian corridor.

Three to four times per year Headwaters holds a student science symposium like this, offering students an opportunity to present their research in a formal setting, which is both great college prep, and simulates the experience of being a professional scientist.