By Chris Spears

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (CBS4) – In the western United States snow provides more than just fun for winter sports, it’s a lifeblood to the people, providing up to 80 percent of the water supply.

Globally, snow is the main source of water for nearly 20 percent of the population.

(credit: NASA)

(credit: NASA)

The importance of snowpack is why scientists began measuring water content as early as the 1930s. Snow core samples were later supplemented with automated SNOTEL stations in the 1970s.

Although land-based observations are helpful, especially to those monitoring and forecasting things such as stream flow and water supply, the data doesn’t offer the detail that would be possible with a view from above.

That’s where SnowEx comes in, a project that literally took flight over Colorado, with scientists studying snow around Senator Beck Basin and on the Grand Mesa.

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SnowEx is a NASA-led collaboration of researchers both in the air and on the ground, using five different airplanes, including a P-3 Orion on loan from the Navy.

The planes are equipped with a total of ten different instruments that are used to detect how much water is in the snowpack below.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

As airborne scientists collect data from the sky, their counterparts do the same on the ground, sometimes working in wind-driven snow and temperatures that can fall below zero.

Their goal is to determine the right combination of instruments for detecting snow water content so that we can eventually measure it in real-time using a satellite from space.

But before that can happen, researchers must first determine how to measure snow in the forest when looking down on it from above, since so much high altitude snowpack is at or below treeline.

Researchers dig a snow pit to study snow water content on the Grand Mesa. (credit: CBS)

Researchers dig a snow pit to study snow water content on the Grand Mesa. (credit: CBS)

The SnowEx study is expected to last for the next five years, although it’s not clear if it will continue in Colorado, or move to other parts of the world.

Meteorologist Chris Spears writes about stories related to weather and climate in Colorado. Check out his bio, connect with him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @ChrisCBS4.

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