Tracking Change: How Snowpack & Weather Monitoring Can Help Navigate New England’s Climate Challenges


By: Stacie Sullivan

Photo by Chris Shane

As another lackluster winter in New England comes to a close, it’s become increasingly evident that winters across the region are changing… fast. But this reality stretches far beyond the ski hills and favorite local backcountry zones. The impacts of climate change are cascading downstream from the mountains, affecting the ecosystems, tourism economy and the general health of the communities that many people hold dear. 

POW Science Alliance members Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski (climate scientist) and Dr. Alix Contosta (ecosystem ecologist) are research assistant professors at the University of New Hampshire and have watched these changes happen both through their research and witnessing it firsthand. 

“It’s not just a loss for the outdoor industry and our ecosystem, but also for us humans. For me it’s looking out the door and seeing brown twig season rather than the snowy characteristics of a New England winter,” said Dr. Burakowski. “There’s a certain loss of your landscape and what you grew up with that really hits you in a way that is an environmental type of grief.”

POW Alliance member Torey Lee Brooks skiing a thin snowpack on Vermont’s Catamount Trail | Photo by Ansel Dickey

This grief is known as solastalgia. A term for environmental distress coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2007, solastaglia comes from the Greek roots of solace (comfort) and algia (grief, suffering) a contrast to nostalgia, the sense of loss when separated from home in space and time. Coming off the heels of the warmest winter on record for the U.S., this feeling was ever prevalent for many individuals who call the Northeast home, but winters here have been changing for a long time, according to a research study Dr. Contosta led back in 2019.

“If you go back 100 years, the sustained cold period across New England was about two to three weeks longer and in some spots across the region, temperatures have warmed by five to six degrees since the 1970s,” said Dr.Burakowski.

Despite this stark reality, the region still lacks important snowpack monitoring systems that would provide data to scientists like Dr. Burakowski and Dr. Contosta. The data collected from these monitoring systems would help them better understand the changes that are occurring, contribute to water, land, and wildlife resource management and help manage risk-assessment for communities. 

The solution? A SNOTEL-esque automated snow and weather monitoring station that is prevalent across the United States Mountain West assisting with monitoring snowpack for water resources management. SNOTEL (Snow Telemetry) is an automated snow and weather monitoring network with over 900 stations spread across the western US and Alaska. SNOTEL is administered by the National Water and Climate Center and funded through the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Currently, nearly all of the snowpack observations in the eastern U.S. are coming from low elevations in highly populated areas, which makes it difficult to get a representative picture of what’s happening across a landscape. 

“What we need is data from where most of the snowpack is accumulating,” said Dr. Contosta. “There isn’t a lot of snowpack monitoring happening in the mountains. We’re also not measuring the snowpack under forest canopies,” Dr. Contosta added. “This is despite the fact that the eastern U.S. has some of the densest tree cover in the nation.”

Why Snowpack Monitoring is Critical to the Region

In the western U.S. snowpack monitoring is important due to water scarcity, however in the eastern U.S., the issue is usually around an overabundance of water and lack of predictability around when flooding will happen. 

“In December 2023, we saw a huge rain-on-snow-on-frozen-ground event,” said Dr. Burakowski. “The measurements we had on the ground were severely lacking which led to a lack of predictability of when, where and how much water would cause damage across our landscape.” 

It’s vital to the region that the network will provide not just snowpack monitoring, but also precipitation monitoring, soil temperature, soil moisture and soil freeze state to help predict flooding from future rain-on-snow events and give adequate flood warnings. It will also give access to better data that will help predict streamflow levels downriver from the snowpack.

“It’s about risk assessment and being able to identify where a deep snowpack might rapidly melt and what the conditions are on the ground in those places. If we have frozen or saturated soil, that can lead to more snowmelt runoff into rivers and culverts and we could see more flooding events like the one in December,” said Dr. Contosta. “If the soil is thawed and well-drained, then it can absorb some of the water and the flood risk may be lower.”

In addition to water resource management and risk assessment, this data will also be important for land managers and the outdoor recreation industry. Having this data will allow industry leaders to be able to predict how many people they can expect on a given weekend based on snowpack levels.

“Sometimes that information is going to be self-evident, but other times it’s great to have an idea of what’s going on in the backcountry and how much snow is there,” said Dr. Burakowski. 

The Process

Dr. Burakowski and Dr. Contosta started exploring automated snow monitoring options back in 2019 when they submitted an abstract to the Eastern Snow Conference with an overview of the data that was supplied from the handful of stations scattered throughout the region that had the snow water equivalent, or SWE, measurements. 

“Of those sites, only two were collecting automated daily SWE data,” said Dr. Burakowski. “There are just so few places where we have any idea how much water equivalent is actually in the snowpack.”

In addition to this challenge, Dr. Burakowski also explained that most of these measurements are being done manually which involves going out with a snow tube, sticking it in the snow and then calculating how much water is in the snow from that manual measurement which only typically happens on a bi-weekly basis, and usually doesn’t start until January.

Dr. Burakowski taking snowpack measurements in New Hampshire’s White Mountains

“While Liz and I, and other researchers across the Northeast try to measure snow and snow water equivalent,” Dr. Contosta added, “We all do things in slightly different ways because we are doing different projects with different goals.”  

The research made it clear that a regional monitoring system with standard protocols was needed, however, due to the upkeep, operation and maintenance this isn’t a project that could be done through traditional scientific funding options like the National Science Foundation. Ultimately, Dr. Burakowski and her team are working to secure ominous bill funding through the Snow Survey Northeast Expansion Act introduced by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) with Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Angus King (I-ME). 

This bill is currently funding the group’s feasibility study which gathers information from interest holders who would use this data to figure out what would make the most sense in terms of network density, location of stations and what they should monitor beyond snowpack. The group includes partners from the Appalachian Mountain Club, the University of Vermont, the Schoodic Institute and SUNY-Albany.

“A critical outcome of the feasibility study is understanding where these sites are needed the most and best meet the needs of the community,” said Dr. Burakowski. 

A key outcome of the feasibility study will include a station network plan with station locations, how much it will cost to build, and plans to maintain and operate it. Part of that work includes visiting SNOTEL sites out west.

Dr. Burakowski and Dr. Contosta’s team visiting a SNOTEL site in Utah

“A lot of SNOTEL stations were historically rooted in snow surveys that took repeat manual observations dating back to the early 1900s,” said Dr. Burakowski. “We want to get it right the first time in our network design, then request funding from  Congress since we can’t just put instruments in without a long-term plan for operations and maintenance.” 

While Dr. Burakowski and her team are in the midst of the research to make this project happen, it’s the first step to helping a region be able to better predict water resources, risk assessment, fluctuations in the tourism economy and study the snowpack. 

“It would have been great to have had this type of network installed back in the 1970s to have a much better handle on just how much snow we’ve lost. But now’s the second best time to start getting that data and start to track it into the future,” said Dr. Burakowski. “I think tracking snow and seeing how well our models can project into the future and how accurately they can recreate the past can help us address climate change.”

Stacie Sullivan

Author: Stacie Sullivan

Stacie always knew she wanted to pursue a career in the ski industry from a young age, having first clicked into skis at the age of 4 and writing her 8th grade career project on being a professional skier. While her dreams of becoming a professional athlete didn’t quite pan out the way she planned at […]