Getting to the Core of Earth’s Falling Snow

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An international plan is unfolding that will launch satellites into orbit to study global snowfall precipitation with unprecedented detail. With the upcoming Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellites, for the first time we will know when, where and how much snow falls on Earth, allowing greater understanding of energy cycles and how best to predict extreme weather.

Snow is more than just a pretty winter decoration… it’s also a very important contributor to fresh water supply in many regions around the world, especially those areas that rely on spring runoff from mountains.

The snowmelt from the Sierra Nevadas, for example, accounts for a third of the water supply for California.

But changing climate and recent drought conditions have affected how much snow the mountains receive in winter… and thus how much water is released in the spring. Unfortunately, as of now there’s no reliable way to comprehensively detect and measure falling snow from space… whether in the Sierras or the Andes or the Alps.

Engineers are building and testing the GPM Core Observatory at Goddard Space Flight Center. (NASA/GSFC)

The GPM Core satellite, slated to launch in 2014, will change that.

“The GPM Core, with its ability to detect falling snows, it’s one of the very first times that we’ve put sensors in space to specifically look at falling snow,” said GPM Deputy Project Scientist Gail Skofronick-Jackson in an online video. “We’re at that edge where rain was fifty years ago. We’re still figuring out how to measure snow.”

And why is snow such a difficult subject to study?

“Rain tends to be spherical like drops,” says Skofronick-Jackson. “But if you’ve ever been out in a snowfall and you’ve looked at your shirt, you see the snow comes in all different forms.”

Once GPM scientists calculate all the various types of snowflake shapes, the satellite will be able to detect them from orbit.

“The GPM Core, with its additional frequencies and information on the sensors, is going to be able to provide us for the first time a lot more information about falling snow than we’ve ever done before.”

Knowing where and how much snow and rain falls globally is vital to understanding how weather and climate impact both our environment and Earth’s energy cycles, including effects on agriculture, fresh water availability, and responses to natural disasters.

Snowfall is a missing part of the puzzle, and GPM will fill those pieces in.

Find out more about the GPM program at pmm.nasa.gov/GPM.

GPM Core is currently being assembled at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and scheduled to launch in 2014 on a Japanese H-IIA rocket.  Initiated by NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), GPM consists of a consortium of international agencies, including the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), and others. 

Jason Major

A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

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