Watching Snow Melt to Understand Our Climate

Snow melting isn’t just a sign of spring for the researchers on the Snow ALbedo eVOlution (SALVO) field campaign. Instead, it is a subject of intense scientific inquiry. With the support of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility, they track how the tundra and sea ice in the Arctic change from season to season.

As the scientists follow the landscape from snow-covered to total melt, they collect data on albedo. Albedo is the amount of sunlight a surface reflects compared to the amount of incoming solar radiation. The albedo of white snow and ice is very different from the brown tundra. Having accurate data on how albedo changes through time is important for providing inputs into computer simulations of the climate.

To ensure they have data that reflects a variety of conditions, the scientists plan to take measurements through three different melt seasons. The team consists of researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Dartmouth College, and the University of Washington.

In 2019 and 2022, they headed out to Utqiaġvik, Alaska, in mid-April. (Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they paused the campaign in 2020 and 2021.) At this point, they took their initial measurements and set up their instruments on sea ice and tundra. This land is Iñupiat land, and the scientists worked closely with the local Utqiaġvik community. They returned in mid-May to track the spring melt.

Just a few of the measurements they took included measuring grains of snow, snow depth, and solar radiation. To do so, they dug pits in the snow, worked with radar-like scanners, and collected snow samples.

But taking measurements was only part of the fun. Researchers also encountered a variety of challenges, including wildlife. The fierce Arctic wind required they bundle up and carefully handle delicate instruments that needed precise balance. Polar bear sightings were a regular experience. One researcher said that in the season she spent in the field, she spotted six polar bears! The midnight sun added to the experience. The nonstop sunlight meant that they could collect data much later than usual, but there was also no night to speak of.

The snowmelt itself didn’t always cooperate either. The 2022 melt season was very late. While the team had planned on leaving on June 15, the snow had hardly started melting. They ended up having to stay another week to take the necessary data. The unpredictable melting reflects changing conditions in the Arctic due to climate change.

The researchers plan to finish their fieldwork in 2024. Their work trudging through the Arctic should help us have a better understanding of this unique ecosystem and our climate as a whole.

Originally published at

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