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How scientists are trying to help save people from avalanches and manage the impacts of climate change from space

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In early February 2021, the U.S. had its deadliest week for avalanches in more than a century, with 15 fatalities. Researchers point to a number of converging factors, from early snowfall followed by drought, to more people skiing in the backcountry because of COVID-19. But underlying all of this is a major problem — scientists still do not have a good way to figure out how much snow there is in a given area. Although there are satellites that can determine geographically where snow has fallen, they do not yet show how deep the snow is, what the snow characteristics are, nor what the snow water equivalent is (the amount of liquid water in the snow when it melts).

The problem does not just impact avalanche forecasting, though. Seasonal snowpack melt in the mountains is a crucial resource for over one billion people around the world, and in the Western US provides approximately 70 percent of the water used by humans. This snow water is used for drinking, agriculture, and hydropower, and with a changing climate, will only become more important.

Hans-Peter Marshall, a professor at Boise State University, is one of the scientists working on this problem as part of […]

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