"Stories in the Snow" - Citizen Science at DRI

DRI is pioneering an exciting and unique approach to the science of snow. The Stories in the Snow pilot project will engage students as citizen scientists in real data collection and research throughout the Lake Tahoe/Truckee Basin.

Student citizen scientists can tell the story of a snowflake from just a picture.

Every snowflake is unique, and the shape of the freshly-fallen crystals can tell us about real-time atmospheric conditions. Using smartphone technology, students can help track the path a snowflake has taken through the atmosphere. The science of snowflakes is nearly as intricate as the shapes of the snowflakes themselves. 

Macro lens and card   Snowflake Lego2    

Our VisionStudents become citizen scientists as they collect important snow science data in real-time.

Our goals in the project are to:

  • Engage students in the Tahoe Basin in inquiry-based learning on the basics of climate science and snow science
  • Employ an innovative approach to citizen science for STEM education
  • Increase situational awareness and awareness of winter natural hazards
  • Increase direct participation in science processes by involving students in helping to collect important scientific data

What is citizen science?

In essence, citizen science involves the public in scientific inquiry and research to answer real-world questions. There are a variety of ways to do this. The researchers leading this project have defined important questions to answer through the collection of ground-based snow crystal observations, and we will train educators and classrooms to be citizen scientists in this process. Through the experience, students will learn about important atmospheric science phenomena in our region.

How will data be collected?

  • Citizen scientists use the snow collection surface and ruler to collect snowflakes. They capture in-focus snowflake photos using the cell phone magnifier lens. The photos should be time- and location-stamped.
  • At the same time as taking the photos, the citizen scientists also collect temperature, wind direction, and visibility observations.
  • Photos and observations are uploaded into the Stories in the Snow web portal, on which real-time data points appear as data are entered. 

morphologydiagram slideshowSource: PBS.org

The Science Underlying Stories in the Snow  

Citizen scientists’ ground observations of snow crystals will be collected and analyzed by researchers to match the image data with temperature, wind speed, wind direction, and visibility (customized for each location), location, time and date.

Researchers will use the student observations to ground-truth a variety of scientific research topics, including matching the snow crystals to the snow observations, using radar to observe show crystals and comparing ground observations of crystals to radar data, validating weather models, associating crystal structures with avalanche frequency, and cloud seeding validation. The shape of the crystals can even indicate where the storm originated, such as over places like Hawaii or Asia.

Data will be publicly available on a freely accessible web portal, including data from other sources that will enhance STEM educational tools such as surface observations (wind, temp, pressure, precipitation), satellite data (cloud height, cloud temperature, optical depth of clouds), radar

 Barker Pass 12.15.2015 098A frosty anemometer to measure wind speed at Barker Pass

This citizen science study will provide tools for students to experience the science used in following the snow storms that provide important water resources. Teachers and students will receive the training needed to capture images of snowflakes during each storm and then upload their images into a database for analysis by scientists. STEM educators will develop the training materials and provide the educator support needed to carry out this project for one season. 

Benefits of this project

This program will involve students across the region in real scientific research. It will improve their understanding of the weather and climate phenomena that affect us every day. Direct engagement in inquiry-based learning will open doors for STEM in the future, and we hope that this curiosity and engagement will also result in lifelong stewardship of the land and the important resources on which we depend.

Scientifically, this project establishes precedents for the uniqueness of its approach to data collection. “Crowd-sourcing” ground observations of snow crystals is not being done anywhere else in the world.  Snow initiation is a weak area of atmospheric research, and this may provide insights to help fill these knowledge gaps in snow science.


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