New Snow Scales Let UNH Researchers Measure Changes in NH’s Snowpack in Real Time

Technology Installed at Kingman Research Farm

Monday, December 11, 2017
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This winter University of New Hampshire researchers will monitor New Hampshire’s snowpack in real time using new sophisticated snow scales installed at the Kingman Research Farm, a facility of the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station.

Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski, research assistant professor at the Earth Systems Research Center within the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space, and her team are investigating how changes in snowpack affect the exchange of energy and water between the atmosphere and the land. Their research aim is to further understand how much winters will continue to warm in response to human activities in the future, and how this warming will affect our ecosystem.  

To do this, they have installed two SnowScales, a new piece of equipment invented by Chris Dundorf of 2KR Systems, Inc. in Barrington, at the Kingman Research Farm in Madbury. The instruments communicate every 30 minutes via wireless modem to computers in the researchers’ offices where the data will be compared with information collected from other instruments at the farm. Other instruments include an eddy covariance tower, which measures carbon and water fluxes over land cover types; soil frost tubes, a traditional method of measuring the depth of frost in soil; and a phenocam, a digital camera that tracks seasonal changes.

Two years ago, New Hampshire experienced one of the warmest and lowest snowfall winters since 1895. Scientists believe warmer winters with less snow will become the norm. This, in turn, could potentially impact our ecosystem with increased incidence of drought, longer growing seasons, and less productive soils. Using new instruments such as the SnowScale will provide scientists with long-term, highly detailed snowpack records that will help them further understand these ecosystem changes.

“Winters in New Hampshire have been warming rapidly--more than 4oF since 1970. With warmer temperatures come fewer days with snow cover, more frequent mid-winter thaws, and a greater proportion of winter precipitation falling as rain instead of snow. These changes in winter climate impact ecosystems in ways that scientists do not yet fully understand. Our study will contribute to a better understanding of how changes in snow cover affect the flow of energy between the land and atmosphere,” Burakowski said.  

Snow is an excellent reflector of the sun's energy and can help to keep surfaces cool in winter, she explained. Without snow, the ground absorbs much more of the sun's energy and re-radiates it as heat, warming the near-surface areas. These changes in temperature, in turn, affect the flow of water through soils, especially as it freezes and thaws.  

“Snow is also an excellent insulator. A snowpack acts like a blanket over soils and helps to prevent soil freezing events. Without deep, persistent snowpacks, will we have more frequent freeze thaw events? At what point does the temperature become too warm for freeze events? If soils remain thawed in a warm winter, will certain plants extend their growing season?  All of these questions rely on accurate, long-term snowpack monitoring,” Burakowski said.  

“As any Granite Stater knows, cold weather and snow draws millions of tourists to our North Country for winter recreation -- skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, snowshoeing, and more. Without snow, will tourists still make the trek north to support our rural economies? This is a multimillion dollar question. Our study is a first step toward establishing a network of snow monitoring equipment that could potentially provide us with long-term, high-quality snow records and relate tourist behavior to snow and winter climate,” she said. 

This work builds off a National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NSF EPSCoR) project Ecosystems and Society. This research also is supported by the NH Agricultural Experiment Station, through joint funding of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award numbers 1006997 and 28121, and the state of New Hampshire.

Founded in 1887, the NH Agricultural Experiment Station at the UNH College of Life Sciences and Agriculture is UNH’s original research center and an elemental component of New Hampshire's land-grant university heritage and mission. We steward federal and state funding, including support from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, to provide unbiased and objective research concerning diverse aspects of sustainable agriculture and foods, aquaculture, forest management, and related wildlife, natural resources and rural community topics. We maintain the Woodman and Kingman agronomy and horticultural research farms, the Macfarlane Research Greenhouses, the Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center, and the Organic Dairy Research Farm. Additional properties also provide forage, forests and woodlands in direct support to research, teaching, and outreach.


Lori Wright, NH Agricultural Experiment Station