Central Sierra Snow Laboratory
"The rest of the world looks to California to see how it manages its water resources," says snow scientist, Randall Osterhuber. "We've even had scientists from China visit our snow lab to study flood forecasting and stream gauging."
Osterhuber, 45, is Director of the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory atop Donner Summit. Understanding the seasonal, spatial, and physical variations of snow packs and alpine watershed climatic regimes is essential if California water managers are to have sufficient resiliency to cope with climatic change.
The Weather Bureau and Army Corps built the lab in 1946; the University of California and Department of Water Resources funded it. The snow lab records and analyzes snow pack data. Spread over two acres, its compound contains seven buildings including a weather station, main study area, underground pits, and "snow pillows," waterbed-looking traps that weigh snow.
"We study stream flow forecasting, snow physics, and how snow packs react to environmental conditions and instrument design," explains the affable, athletic Osterhuber whose career in snow science has spanned two decades.
The science of snow surveying and forecasting water runoff began after the turn of the 20th century when a 31-year-old University of Nevada professor of Classics, Dr. James Church, strapped on a pair of web snowshoes and headed towards the summit of Mount Rose.
Recruiting some of his students, one being the future founder of Palisades Tahoe, Wayne Poulsen, Dr. Church, known today as "the father of snow surveying," constructed a meteorological station on the summit of Mount Rose's 10,800 -foot peak. He wanted to carry out experiments in snow measuring and forecasting runoffs for the benefit of Nevada ranchers.
Although the scientific equipment has advanced dramatically since Church's heyday, the bulk of snow surveying still results from field study in the backcountry.
"A lot of our work is not that much different from the old days," admits Osterhuber. "It's punching holes in the snow, taking core samples, and weighing them."
Winter months, Osterhuber and associates travel deep into the high-yield snow zones of the central and southern Sierra to study the outflow of water and snow depths. It's a physically and mentally demanding job. Because studies take place in protected Wilderness Areas, helicopters cannot be used. The scientists stay in cabins a day-ski apart. The snow surveyors are basically on their own. Danger from avalanche to sleepless bears is always present.
Osterhuber, a former president of Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue, conducts annual classes in avalanche awareness for the public. He looks at any hardships as just part of the job.
" A lot of the terrain is above timberline. It can be physically taxing, especially in big winters, but it's never boring," he confesses. "I love the mountains. The scenery is spectacular and I must admit I'm nostalgic for the outdoors. I get sad with every season change."
What about predictions? "We don't do weather predictions although that's the first thing people always ask us," he laughs. "The difference between a dry and wet year can sometimes be just one or two storms. I've learned that no two winters are alike. Every winter is different. There's always something new to be learned."
It has been said that California feeds the nation and that the nation feeds the world. For a heavily populated state that thrives upon tourism, Silicon chips, software, suntan lotion, and motion pictures, water-mostly from Sierra snow--remains its most valuable resource.