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News Release

Surveyors Spend a Night in Snow Caves to Practice Outdoor Survival Skills

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Release No. 2014.01.002

Tony Tolsdorf, NRCS Hydrologist:  (503) 367-1779 (cell),
Sara Magenheimer, State Public Affairs Officer, 503-414-3250,

Bend, Ore. (Jan. 8, 2014)—Scientists, engineers and technicians employed in the snow survey arena across the West will gather on Mount Bachelor next week for training in snow sampling, avalanche recognition, outdoor survival and emergency care. The class takes place the week of January 13-17, 2014.

As part of the training, participants will be required to build a snow cave at the Wanoga Snow Park (between Bend and the Mt. Bachelor Ski area) and spend the night in it on Wednesday, January 15.

With the overnight snow bivouac, participants will have the opportunity to practice their outdoor survival skills. The exercise will provide potentially life-saving experience and know-how to the participants, who traverse to remote mountain locations each winter gathering snow pack data used for water supply forecasts, research and emergency and natural resource management.

"It is important to measure the snowpack in remote and rugged locations," said Snow School instructor Tony Tolsdorf, Hydrologist for the USDA Water and Climate Center in Portland. "It is rare, but occasionally snow surveyors are caught in the elements and have to dig in and wait for help. It's a possibility we must recognize and prepare for."

Snow school is conducted by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as part of their mission to forecast water supplies based on snow pack, precipitation, observed stream flow, soil moisture and other climatic data. The purpose of the training is twofold: to ensure the safety of snow surveyors while giving them the skills to properly collect this important data.

"Approximately 75 to 80 percent of the water in the western United States comes from melting mountain snow. Measuring and interpreting snow packs provides vital information needed to manage water supplies for agriculture, industry, cities and wildlife," said Tolsdorf.

NRCS operates an automated system to collect snowpack data in the western United States called SNOTEL (SNOwpack TELemetry). 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.” There are currently 885 SNOTEL sites across operating the West, and snow surveyors must conduct onsite ground truthing to verify the accuracy of the data. In addition, manual snow sampling is still done at some 1,160 snow courses. These manual surveys require teams of trained surveyors to snowshoe or ski to remote mountain sites during times of maximum snowpack accumulation, usually March 1, April 1 and May 1.

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Originally established by Congress in 1935 as the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), NRCS has expanded to become a conservation leader for all natural resources, ensuring private lands are conserved, restored, and more resilient to environmental challenges.  The NRCS works with landowners through conservation planning and assistance designed to benefit the soil, water, air, plants, and animals that result in productive lands and healthy ecosystems.


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