Special Kids Section

The Science of Snow

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About once a month, snow rangers hike, ski and snowshoe their way to the tops of the mountains in Northern New Mexico. They have a single purpose -- measure the snow. They get data from weather stations and use special tools to pull out tall columns of snow so they can see how deep, dense and wet the snow actually is.

So far, this winter has been a good one for snow. You can see on U.S. Hill when you go sledding, or on the streets on the way to school. And you can see all that snow pile up in the mountains above Taos.

But snow isn't just for fun. Once the weather warms up, all that snow becomes one of the biggest sources of water in the dry Southwest.

As the saying goes, "Water is life." That's why the snow rangers and a lot of other scientists constantly monitor the snow and try to find out how it's being impacted by a changing climate.

January and early February is the middle of the season when storms blanket the mountains with layers and layers of snow.

Kerry Jones, senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, explained why the "snowpack" -- all those layers of snow -- are so important to daily life in the West.

"When it comes to water, [snow] is money in the bank. It's our savings account," Jones said.

Think back to last winter. You might remember the snow in the mountains was patchy. Very little snow actually fell and what did fall melted early. "Last winter, we didn't put anything in the bank," Jones said.

It's the time between October and late March when the snowpack builds in the mountains. And luckily for Northern New Mexico, quite a bit of snow has fallen in that period this winter. So far this winter, the Río Grande basin -- the central part of New Mexico -- is at 85 percent of the "normal" amount of snowfall, with normal being the average amount of snow over the past 30 years.

However, not all snow is the same when it comes to the amount of water.

"Snow comes in all types of varieties," Jones said. There's "broom snow," which is so light you can sweep it with a broom. Then there's really wet snow that basically melts in your hands. And there's snow that is somewhere in the middle that's good for making snowballs and snow people.

By April and May, the two windiest months in New Mexico, snow starts to really melt off the mountains, filling the rivers around the valley. The dust that blows around settles on the snow high in the mountains, making it darker, Jones said. And slightly darker snow absorbs more of the sun's energy, meaning the snow melts faster than it normally would.

At the same time, climate change has started to shift when the melt happens.

Data shows that over the last couple of decades, less snow has fallen and the melting season has come earlier in the year. And that makes it hard for farmers to know when to clean the acequias and plant their crops.

With about two months left in the snowy season, let's hope more storms dump even more snow on the mountains. Then we can all listen as it starts to melt, and pay attention to the water that flows through the valley.

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