A little over half of the total runoff per year has its origins in snowpack from regional mountain ranges in the western United States. Seasonal snowpack, also referred to as a natural water tower as it stores winter precipitation and releases it as snowmelt, provides an essential resource for downstream ecosystems. However, estimating and measuring the distribution of snow in the world’s mountains is still considered one of the most long-lasting and pressing unsolved problems in hydrology. With climate change expected to bring additional challenges, this problem is becoming ever more critical for water managers around the world. 

California native and general snow-and-mountain enthusiast PhD student Manon von Kaenel is motivated to help address this issue with her research under PI Dr. Steve Margulis in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at UCLA. She was recently awarded the 2021 FINESST (Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology) Fellowship from NASA to support this effort. Out of 835 applicants nationwide, she is one of 53 graduate students to receive this prestigious fellowship. For Manon, this fellowship of $45,000/yr for 3 years will fund her proposal “Real-time diagnosis of spatially-continuous snow and snow-driven streamflow for decision support”. 

This project proposes a framework to estimate the distribution and magnitude of snow water resources in real-time, by relying on readily available NASA- and NASA-derived data products. These snowpack estimates can then be used to produce improved runoff and streamflow forecasts in snow-influenced regions, like the Sierra Nevada and Central Valley of California. Ultimately, the vision is that on a day when a water manager or regular civilian wants to know exactly how much water a snowpack might yield, they can directly access an accurate and detailed map of the depth and water content of that snowpack. The project also addresses important science questions about the vulnerability of the current water management forecasting system to climate change, snow distribution patterns, and the evolving relationship between streamflow and snow. 

Congratulations, Manon!