Survey shows Mount Hood snowpack above average in water content.
While many skiers and snowboarders were out testing the slopes last Thursday, Snow Hydrologist Julie Koeberle and her crew from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Oregon Snow Survey were out testing something else: the water content in the snowpack.
About a quarter mile stretch of the Timberline Lodge access road is the highest of eight Mount Hood snow telemetry (SNOTEL) sites. This is where Koeberle and her team go twice a year to measure the snowpack and its water content and give a reading on what their implications are for the regional environment.
As they load up their equipment and don their snowshoes and skis, the crew talks about how last year at this time they hadn't needed to shovel stairs into the shelf of snow on the side of the road, but with recent accumulation, this year it was a must to be able to access the area of the SNOTEL site.
The test is accomplished with a long aluminum tube, which Koeberle thrusts into the snowpack, picking up a sample of snow. She then measures the density of the snowpack and, in turn, the water content of the sample. What does that mean? It means 1 inch of snow can hold a different level of water content, based on the density of the snow within that inch.
On Dec. 29, the team took it midseason reading. It will follow up with another reading in spring for the peak of the season. From this test, Koeberle predicts positive impact from our snowy winter, but not nearly as positive as the recent weather may lead the average person to believe.
Koeberle explained later in an email that though the state's snowpack overall has seen a slight decrease since last year, the Mount Hood area has a 138 percent of normal snowpack, comparing well with last year's 124 percent.
That being said, though the results for 2016 were not bad, the snowpack across Oregon dropped from 150 percent of normal from 2015 to 128 percent in 2016.
For those of you who are confused, while on Mount Hood Koeberle explained that "there are a couple of reasons why that is surprising. I was surprised too. You're like 'Wait a minute. It's been snowing like crazy in December here.'" So part of that is, we've had really cold temperatures, so when we talk about that percent of normal we're talking about that water content measurement, we're not talking about that depth. So, in our lower elevation sites, they're well above normal, and some of you probably knew that because of our recent snowpocalypse in Portland. So the coverage is fantastic, but that's not the measurement that we're talking about."
It's the coverage that confuses people.
Koeberle went on to say that many ski areas have been opening up places they don't usually allow access to until later in the season, because there has been enough snow, but — though that snow may seem great for those hitting the slopes — it is not ideal for water accumulation.
The snowpack on Mount Hood measured at 85 inches (7 feet deep) and the water content was 24.4 inches, meaning that if one were to melt the snowpack, there would be two feet of water stored beneath it.
In her summary email, Koeberle explained that "it is early in the season, but current conditions and long-range weather forecasts are shaping up for a promising new water year."