MONITORING SNOW DRIVEN MOUNTAIN SYSTEMS
Climate change researchers around the world have recognized mountains as a sensitive bellwether of global change, where 'system responses' are more transparent and perhaps quicker to present than in lower elevation urbanized or rural settings.
When viewed holistically, as an Earth surface system driven by complex interactions over space and time between the atmosphere, lithosphere, cryosphere, and anthrosphere, the alpine snow system requires new insights into its behavior and crucial role in all mountain systems. Mountains, via their seasonal snowpacks and other cryospheric reservoirs, are the "water towers of the world." In the western United States, 50-80% of the water supply descends from the sky in the form of seasonal mountain snows. Globally, more than a billion people depend on the snow system for water supplies. Understanding the seasonal delivery and distribution of mountain snowcover, the snowpack storage and release of water, the role of ablation, the biogeochemical role of the snow system, and the effects of climate on those processes, are clearly of increasing importance to the American West and to snowmelt-watered regions everywhere.
The interannual variability of the snow resource, and the possibility that climate change could cause substantial long-term changes in the distribution of seasonal snow and other cryospheric reserves of water, require a thorough analysis of snow's relationshipto economies of regions and enterprises that depend on snow or its runoff. Further, as settlement in mountain regions increases, the snow system increasingly poses hazards - such as snow avalanches and floods - to residents, recreationists, travelers, and human investments. Therefore, the study of how snow system processes work and change over space and time, is fundamental to understanding how the mountain realm's 'music of spheres' influences human/environment relationships, and to developing effective policies for apportioning snowmelt resources or coping with winter hazards.
The CSAS has created the Senator Beck Basin Study Area infrastructure, in an alpine headwater catchment near Red Mountain Pass in the San Juan Mountains. Additionally, in 2004 the Colorado Natural Heritage Program performed a $5,000 'baseline inventory' of the Senator Beck Basin plant communities for the CSAS. That project was designed to facilitate repeat inventories at regular 5-year intervals in order to detect changes in the Basin's plant species and their distribution. See 2009 baseline study report.
As seen in the above photograph, our extensive sensor arrays must endure the rigors of winter (and summer) at high elevations to yield reliable, high quality data. Those extensive datasets, and their associated metadata, can be viewed in near-real time or from our archived datasets page.
Long-term monitoring requires sustained effort and funding. In addition to governmental support, CSAS is receiving support from "Citizen Funders" to underwrite this important science mission.
See also: Who is using CSAS data