United States Department of Agriculture
Natural Resources Conservation Service
National Water and Climate Center Go to Accessibility Information
Skip to Page Content
National Water and Climate Center


Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting

Snow Surveys - Manual

Manual surveys require two-person teams to measure snow depth and water content at designated snow courses (fig. 6). A snow course is a permanent site that represents snowpack conditions at a given elevation in a given area. A particular snowpack may have several courses. Generally, the courses are about 1,000 feet long and are situated in small meadows protected from the wind.

A Snow Course Marker

Figure 6. The surveyors are approaching
a typical snow course marker. This is
one of the nearly 1,600 they or others
will encounter several times each winter.

Measurements generally are taken on or near the first of every month during the snowpack season. The frequency and timing of these measurements varies considerably with the locality, the nature of the snowpack, difficulty of access, and cost. On occasion, special surveys are scheduled to help evaluate unusual conditions. The manual surveys involve travel and work in remote areas, often in bad weather, but reliable data are obtained. Locations that are too hazardous or costly to measure on the ground can be equipped with depth markers that can be read from aircraft (fig. 7). Snow depth can be measured in this way with a high degree of accuracy. Although the amount of water in the snowpack is not measured, it can be reliably estimated from the observed snow depth.

A Snow Survey Depth Marker

Figure 7. Another form of manual
surveying is reading depth markers
from aircraft for locations too hazardous
or costly to measure from the ground.

NRCS conducts intensive training in snow sampling techniques, safety, and mountain survival. On-the-job training and an annual "west-wide" school develop the needed skills. The school has become known throughout the Western United States and Canada for its unique training program offered to NRCS employees and others engaged in the cooperative surveys. A critical part of the training is the overnight bivouac in a snow shelter the student constructs (fig. 8). Many graduates have credited this training with bringing them safely through unforeseen, hazardous situations.

A student perparing a snow shelter

Figure 8. Students attenting the "west-wide" school learn to construct
snow shelters such as this trench shelter.


Manual surveys

The surveyor makes certain that the tube is clear of all snow and soil before taking the snow core sample (fig. 9). The team uses a strong, light-weight, graduated aluminum tube and a weighing scale.

Measuring Snowpack

Figure 9.

One surveyor measures the snow depth while the other records data (fig. 10). From 5 to 10 measurements are taken at regular intervals along a snow course. Snow depth is measured by pushing the tube down through the snowpack to the ground surface and extracting a core.

Measuring Snowpack

Figure 10.

In taking an accurate snow core sample, the surveyor must verify that the tube has reached ground level by examining the base of the tube and finding soil (fig. 11). After clearing out the soil from the tube, the surveyor determines the amount of water in the snowpack by weighting the tube with its snow core and subtracting the weight of the empty tube (fig. 12). An average of all samples taken is calculated and used to represent the snow course.

Snowpack Core Sample Tube

Figure 11.

Weighing the Snowpack Sample

Figure 12.