Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., said traditional measuring devices such as snow gauges or yardsticks often are inadequate for capturing snow totals needed by transportation crews, water managers and others who make vital safety decisions.
A prototype device that uses light pulses, satellite signals and other technologies offers the potential to provide almost instant measurements of snow totals that can often vary significantly within a single field or neighborhood, the center said in a release Monday.
"We've been measuring rain accurately for centuries, but snow is much harder because of the way it's affected by wind and sun and other factors," center scientist Ethan Gutmann said. "It looks like new technology will finally give us the ability to say exactly how much snow is on the ground."
The prototype laser device installed by the center at a test site in the Rocky Mountains can measure snow at more than 1,000 points across an area almost the size of a football field, researchers said, and can measure up to 10 feet of snow with an accuracy of half and inch.
The specialized laser instruments under development by the center, once set up at a location, will automatically measure snow depth across large areas, they said.
"If we're successful, all of a sudden these types of instruments will reveal a continually updated picture of snow across an entire basin," Gutmann said.