NIWA seeks help from skiers and snow bunnies

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A NIWA scientist is asking for the help of skiers, mountaineers and alpine professionals to collect snow for a new research project.

NIWA hydrologist Dr Alice Hill testing snow meltwater

Hydrologist Dr Alice Hill is launching the Aotearoa Snow Isotope Project at this week’s Southern Hemisphere Alpine Conference in Wanaka. She is seeking the help of anyone who spends time in the alpine environment to collect a snow sample and send it to her for chemical isotope analysis.

“We’re asking patrollers, ski field staff, climbers, or avid skiers out for the day to collect a small snow sample. Data on snow is very limited in New Zealand so any citizen science samples we get from this project will provide important information,” Dr Hill said.

The winter snow season is her immediate data collection focus, but snow samples collected year-round will be valuable contributions to the data set.

The goal of the research is to determine the amount of meltwater making its way into rivers and groundwater and how that may change over time.  

This is particularly important in a changing climate which may affect future supply. “Snow is sensitive to rising temperatures and many industries, such as hydropower and agriculture, depend on snowmelt for their livelihoods so we need to know what to expect in the future.”

In addition, Australian bushfires in recent years have resulted in ash deposits on New Zealand snowfields which Dr Hill says has a profound impact on the timing and rate of the melt.

“Climate change and human-induced activities are changing how much snow there is, when and how fast it melts. This means our downstream water resources that are partially sourced from snowmelt, like rivers and groundwater, may not look the same in the future. This has implications for the way that regional councils manage water takes, and for individual users like farmers who need some certainty around how much water they’ll have access to, and when.”

Isotope analysis of both snow and water downstream can tell scientists where the water came from, and is used to calculate how much snow melt is in the river.

Canterbury is the initial focus for the research and Dr Hill is targeting specific snowfields such as Temple Basin, Mt. Hutt, Broken River, and Craigieburn to help generate a weekly time series. However, snow samples are also sought from citizen scientists all over the South Island to help build the database.

“We need to get a wide spatial collection of isotope samples so we can improve our New Zealand-wide model which will make it more useful for understanding the role that snow plays across the country.”

Collecting samples is an easy process. Dr Hill has sampling packs available to send out that contain all the instructions as well as a set of tubes, marker pen and pre-paid courier bag to send back to Dr Hill. A small amount of fresh surface snow needs to be scooped into the tube and some details of time and place recorded.

 “Just let the snow melt and then send it back to me.”

Dr Hill will have sampling packs available at the conference or if you are willing to help you can contact her at [email protected] and she will send you the sampling supplies.

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