More than 1.2 billion people around the globe depend on snowmelt for their water supply. Now, NASA, along with nearly 100 scientists from two dozen organizations are on the verge of discovering a method to accurately quantify the world’s water supply contained in snowpack.
Designed as a five-year study and funded by NASA’s Terrestrial Hydrology Program, SnowEx will use airborne lasers, imaging spectrometers, and radar to measure snowpack density and volume on a scale and elevation impossible to reach by foot. Still in its infancy, tests are currently being conducted in Grand Mesa, Colorado, and the western San Juan Mountains.
“The holy grail here is to measure snow water equivalent – the amount of water you’d have if you instantly melted the snow,” Chris Hiemstra, an Alaska based scientist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in an interview with FiveThirtyEight.
In the same report, Kelly Elder, a research hydrologist at the U.S. Forest Service and leader of the SnowEx fieldwork, commented on the economic implications of the study. “If we can do a little bit better in forecasting how much snowmelt is coming out of the mountains and when it’s going to come out, it’s worth millions to billions of dollars in terms of commerce. We can change when we plant crops, we can do reservoir management for agriculture, and plan when we’re going to use hydropower.” 
Current methods of forecasting runoff have not changed in a hundred years, and is quickly becoming outdated. Historically, state water officials have trekked into the mountains armed with three tools: a snow core tube, a scale, and a notebook. Data points that were collected were turned into statistical models that use historical averages to estimate the water contained in the snowpack. However, warmer winters have produced early snowmelts and more precipitation as rain than as snow, making current methods of data collection unreliable.
“We have a changing average in the snowpack,” says Elder. “That makes statistical models more difficult to use. These are tools that water managers rely on to make decisions about things like how much water to discharge from dams and how to allocate precious water supplies.”
In an article published by Bend Bulletin, California’s Forecasting Chief Dave Rizzardo explains that at the end of the five-year study, the goal of SnowEx will be to develop a package of remote sensing tools that can be deployed on a satellite to measure worldwide snowpack.
“It’s going to be a number of years…but that is the dream.” 
1 Aschwanden, Christie. NASA Is Digging in the Snow to Help the West Manage Its Water. April 10, 2017. Web. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/nasa-is-digging-in-the-snow-to-help-the-west-manage-its-water/
2 Aschwanden. NASA Is Digging in the Snow to Help the West Manage Its Water. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/nasa-is-digging-in-the-snow-to-help-the-west-manage-its-water/
3 Serna, Joseph. NASA looks to future when snowpack can be measured without a pole. June 20, 2017. Web. http://www.bendbulletin.com/home/5393185-151/nasa-looks-to-future-when-snowpack-can-be
4 Aschwanden. NASA Is Digging in the Snow to Help the West Manage Its Water. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/nasa-is-digging-in-the-snow-to-help-the-west-manage-its-water/
5 Serna. NASA looks to future when snowpack can be measured without a pole. http://www.bendbulletin.com/home/5393185-151/nasa-looks-to-future-when-snowpack-can-be
Picture Reference: US Geological Survey Flickr