The fourth and fifth graders at Sage Ridge School in Reno fill their classroom with shouts of “ooh” and “ahh” as Meghan Collins teaches them how to take pictures of snowflakes with their phones. Since it’s not snowing, they’re practicing with salt.
“You’re going to want to get the camera really, really close to the object and then slowly move it away,” Collins explains as the students put a magnifying glass over the phone’s camera, so they can snap a detailed picture. As the kids focus the lens, they get really excited and yell, “It’s glowing.”
Collins tells the kids they are going to see many hexagons, because all snowflakes are made of them. “You can see how a simple little hexagon can turn into a complicated snow crystal,” she adds.
This is all part of a project called Stories in the Snow, organized by the Desert Research Institute in Reno. It began three years ago because scientists wanted to better understand storms, and to figure out how warmer winters alter weather systems and snow levels.
When it eventually snows, teachers will take the kids outside to catch snowflakes on black pieces of felt. They’ll snap photos, then upload them to an app called Citizen Science Lake Tahoe.
Catching a snowflake and snapping its picture is simple, but the projects lead scientists Frank McDonough says the end result may help scientists figure out everything from how severe a storm might be to how much water is in the annual snowpack — or even how climate change is affecting snow levels.
“There’s clues to be had by looking at the structure of the snowflake on the ground,” McDonough said. “Our goal is to try to get as many people collecting snowflakes over as wide an area of a storm and time periods of a storm as possible.”
The results are already being used for projects that may help improve weather forecasts, provide insights for snow removal crews, and predict when avalanches will occur.
This project is important because the other way of analyzing snowflakes is by using special aircraft, but that costs thousands of dollars per hour, says McDonough. His goal is to gather enough photos to create a database for everyone from scientists to ski resort operators.
“The snowflake’s telling you what went on in that cloud, so you can actually learn about the path the crystal took” as it fell from the sky, said McDonough.
By analyzing hundreds of photos from one storm, then many storms, scientists can get a clearer picture of how snowpack is changing in the Sierra.
“I’m interested in how these ice crystals form, how they’re growing, and which types of crystals lead to the most snowfall,” said McDonough.
He says the fun part is sorting through the images because it’s nearly impossible to find identical snowflakes.
“It is true no crystals are exactly the same because they fall through a slightly different path, they form at slightly different temperatures,” McDonough said.
Last year, students and other users submitted more than 500 photos. This year, 19 schools are on board and at least 100 kits were sent out, so McDonough expects more.
People can buy a kit — which includes a magnifying glass, a card to catch snowflakes on and a thermometer — for $25 bucks. When they do, the program will send a second kit to a school.
Heather Segale with the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center says the projects biggest impact is on students.
“They learn how to collect and analyze data, how to draw conclusions, how to communicate findings — and all of that is a great experience for the students,” Segale said. “It’s real and not just a homework assignment.”
But this process of becoming a citizen scientist isn’t just for fifth graders. Collins herself was recently hunting for snowflakes near the resort Mount Rose Ski Tahoe.
She says the best way to get a clear photo is to get as close as possible to the snowflake. “What you are seeing are a lot of crystals that have landed, and then when the snow’s laying here in the sun some of those water molecules will sublimate,” Collins said, describing the process of snow turning into water vapor.
She teaches students, but she’s also a researcher. “My dream would be to take this project beyond the Tahoe region to perhaps other states and to answer other scientific questions,” Collins said.
She wants to figure out if ash and dust from wildfires increase snowfall “or are there certain snow crystal types that are associated with avalanche frequency, or highways closures,” Collins said.
But to do that she’s going to need to even more photos of snowflakes from across the region.
For more information on how to become a citizen scientist or to order a kit click here.