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News - Westwide Snow School to Teach Sampling and Survival

Natural Resources Conservation Service - News Release

Westwide Snow School to Teach Sampling and Survival

Anita Brown (530) 792-5644
Tony Tolsdorf (503) 467-1829

Updated Jan. 13, 2012 - Photos Now Available: The Westwide Snow Survey and Survival School was held January 8-13. One requirement of the school was that participants find, build and sleep overnight in a shelter of their own making. Usually this involves crafting a snow cave. Not this year. It's the driest in memory. Thus, students found novel ways to build shelters from tree trunks, pine boughs, bark and their own tarps and ski poles. Click here to view a few of the results.

DAVIS, Calif., January 5, 2012—Scientists, engineers, and technicians employed in the water resources arena will convene at Granlibakken Conference Center in Tahoe City, Calif., for training in snow sampling, avalanche recognition, outdoor survival, and emergency care.

The annual Westwide Snow Survey School is held in western states on a rotating basis and is part of the effort to predict water supply based on snow pack, precipitation, observed stream flow, soil moisture, and other climatic data. The school is conducted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The training is required of all snow surveyors collecting data for NRCS and has been held nearly every year since 1950.

The current near-record dry conditions in the area notwithstanding, the 2012 training will take place the week of Jan. 8-13, 2012. It includes an overnight survival bivouac on Wednesday, January 11. Typically each participant is required to build a snow cave and spend the night in it. This year students will still learn to improvise shelter in outdoor conditions, but probably without the insulating power of snow.

"Accurate snow sampling sometimes needs to be done in some pretty remote locations," said School Coordinator Tony Tolsdorf, a hydrologist at the NRCS National Water and Climate Center in Portland, Ore. "It is rare, but occasionally snow samplers get caught in the elements and have to hole in and wait for help. It's a possibility we must recognize and prepare for — with or without significant snow pack."

"Approximately 75 percent of the western U.S.’s water comes from melting mountain snow. Measuring and interpreting snow pack results is vital information for drought, floods, and water supply for agriculture, industry, cities, and wildlife managers," added Tolsdorf.

NRCS also operates an automated system to collect snowpack data in the western United States called SNOwpack TELemetry (SNOTEL). The system evolved from NRCS's Congressional mandate in the mid-1930s "to measure snowpack in the mountains of the West and forecast the water supply."

Since 1980, SNOTEL has reliably collected the data needed to produce water supply forecasts. Climate studies, air and water quality investigations, and resource management concerns are all served by the SNOTEL network. The high-elevation watershed locations and the broad coverage of the network provide important data collection opportunities to researchers, water managers, and emergency managers for natural disasters such as floods. Information from SNOTEL sites in California can be found at

Note to Media: Media are invited to any portion of the snow school and may also interview federal westwide hydrologists on the near record dry conditions currently occurring in parts of the west. A hydrologist specializing in the Tahoe Basin will be available Tuesday only. Highlights include: Tuesday afternoon: avalanche identification and rescue; Wednesday: wilderness survival; Thursday: snow sampling for water prediction. Please contact Anita Brown to arrange:; Office: 530-792-5644; Cell: 916-743-8102.

Since 1935, NRCS has provided conservation-related products and services that enable people to be good stewards of the Nation’s soil, water, and related natural resources on non-Federal lands. With our help, people are better able to conserve, maintain, or improve their natural resources. As a result of our technical and financial assistance, land managers and communities take a comprehensive approach to the use and protection of natural resources in rural, suburban, urban, and developing areas.


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