Father of snow surveying called the Sierra home

Mark McLaughlin
Submitted photoThe vital science and art of snow surveying is practiced by countries throughout the world, but it all began right here in the Lake Tahoe and Truckee River watersheds. We can thank Dr. James Edward Church.

In an average winter, the April snow survey is the most important because water content in the Sierra snowpack usually peaks at that time. Climate records suggest that by the first week of April, the bulk of the winter storm season is over and there will be little appreciable precipitation added to the snowpack and lower watersheds. This year, however, precipitation in the form of rain and snow during April has continued to add to the burgeoning load of water accumulating in the mountains. Lake Tahoe has risen more than four feet this season, and watercourses draining both sides of the Sierra Nevada have already breached levees and riverbanks. There is still an abundant snowpack waiting to melt and engineers are concerned that an early season heat wave could generate damaging floods.

Measuring water content in the Sierra snow pack is a critical component in the calculus for managing our precious water supplies in the arid West. There are more than 300 snow course locations in the Sierra, where water content is measured between January and April. Improved technology allows an increasing number of snow stations to be monitored automatically, but the monthly snow surveys still rely on the human surveyor to get the job done. Paired for safety, surveyors travel on skis, snowshoes or in snowcats into remote Sierra watersheds to take on-site measurements of the snowpacks water content. Skiers and snowboarders may prefer powder to slush, but hydrologists, reservoir operators, ranchers, farmers and city folk depend upon the Sierra snowpack for its water content, not its depth. Once water managers determine the total amount of water expected to flow into streams and rivers during spring melt, they can predict how to best fill the regions reservoirs or attempt to mitigate any potential flood issues before they occur. The vital science and art of snow surveying is practiced by countries throughout the world, but it all began right here in the Lake Tahoe and Truckee River watersheds. We can thank Dr. James Edward Church, a quiet art history professor, for developing this important hydrological science. Known at the Father of Snow Surveying, Church seemed to be the right man in the right place at the right time. He came to Nevada in 1892 from the University of Michigan where he had graduated as a Phi Beta Kappa in the classics. Hired to teach Latin and art appreciation at the University of Nevada, Reno, Churchs fascination with the nearby mountains drew him into the world of snow surveying.Western Nevadans had counted on the vital Sierra snowpack ever since the first pioneers settled the region in the 1850s. In fact, practically all of Nevadas agriculture depends upon irrigation by water taken from mountain runoff. Rivers like the Humboldt, Truckee, Carson and Walker, and a few smaller ones, never reach the ocean, yet their waters are precious to the land they serve. As the population boomed and reservoir systems were developed, the potential water yield from the melting snowpack became increasingly important.

Today, more than a quarter of a million Nevadans rely on the Sierras annual spring runoff to fill depleted reservoirs and replenish ground water supplies. But when Dr. Church arrived at the end of the 19th century, data concerning this critical natural resource were not available. Church and his wife Florence loved to hike and climb the majestic Sierra and the two of them spent considerable time there. The beautiful meadows and the snowcapped peaks appealed to the artist in Church. While taking photographs of the spectacular scenery, his scientific side took notice of the regions integration of natural mechanisms. Church often said, Nature tells you things if you but question her and open your eyes. Soon the development of a comprehensive understanding of how mountain snowpacks influence stream and river flow became the central passion in Churchs life.Arid western Nevada created a challenging environment for Churchs fledgling research. The lofty Sierra range runs along a general north-south axis, obstructing easterly flowing Pacific storms. Moisture-laden clouds are uplifted over the mountains, where cooler air forces the release of heavy amounts of rain and snow. East of the Sierra crest, precipitation amounts decrease precipitously. Weather and climate data from the Sierra were basically non-existent when Church arrived. During the summer of 1904, Dr. Church repeatedly climbed 10,800-foot high Mount Rose in order to build a shelter in which he could install a remote weather observatory. He began recording snow and weather conditions on Mt. Rose for the National Weather Service in 1905. Every two weeks, Church bravely snowshoed up to the storm-wracked summit to gather data on temperature, barometric pressure and the snowpack. No matter that the Mount Rose weather station was constructed, installed and manned by an art teacher, it was the first to record high-altitude weather in the Sierra.Church soon learned that determining accurate precipitation measurements from Mount Rose was extremely difficult. High winds disperse snowfall erratically over the exposed higher terrain, but Church discovered that by selecting an area within the lower forested slopes, he could accurately record the average snowpack found on the mountain. Until then, loggers had always believed that clear-cutting any mountainside actually increased the snow depth. Churchs research proved the importance of forest conservation in maintaining an optimum snowpack.Church designed surveying equipment to meet the rigorous Sierra conditions. Twenty-foot snowpacks demanded a sampling device that could penetrate ice and snow without bending or breaking. Church simply called his invention the Mount Rose snow sampler. The apparatus consists of a sectioned hollow metal tube with a serrated cutter on one end. Teams of two surveyors each drive the sampler through the snowpack until it hits soil or rock. When withdrawn, the instrument retains all the snow from the ground up. The water content of the sample core is then determined by weighing the snow-filled tube on a spring balance calibrated to indicate the ratio of water by snow weight.When Church realized his data represented the vanguard of an emerging scientific field, he joined forces with UNR Professor of Civil Engineering H. P. Boardman to develop the complex mathematical formula by which snowpack measurements are converted into water runoff forecasts.

In order to better forecast and control the seasonal water level fluctuations at Lake Tahoe, Church established a survey course to measure runoff into the Tahoe Basin. Churchs surveys enabled Tahoe dam operators to better regulate releases to prevent both flooding and waste of water, which in turn helped to tone down the conflict between lakefront property owners, the power company who owned the dam and others. In March 1911, the Sierra snowpack reached 37-1/2 feet; still the deepest on record. February rains had soaked the thick white mantle with tons of water. When a warning from Professor Church helped the Truckee River General Electric Co. avoid a spring flood in 1911, he proved that his new snow survey methods were successful. Just four years prior, in 1906-07, nearly 74 feet of snow had fallen in the mountains, another record for the region. The destructive spring flood of 1907 had been the worst in history in the Carson, Walker and Truckee watersheds. High water that year covered Western Nevada with roughly the same amount of water as did the devastating New Years flood of 1997.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Weather Bureau did not appreciate Churchs efforts and the agency withdrew its support for his work in 1917. Luckily, hydrologists from California and Nevada understood the value of the research and the snow surveys continued without missing a beat. Dr. Church took his homespun technology on a world tour, directing surveying parties in many regions including the Himalayas, Greenland, Argentina and Switzerland. A strong advocate of international friendliness, Church later reflected, I went forth in search of science but found humanity instead.From the humble experience of hiking the Sierra grew an important science, implemented the world over. Dr. Churchs passion for the mountains resulted in a lifetime career that impacted communities worldwide. The ashes of James and Florence are sealed in the corner stone of the Church Fine Arts Building at the University of Nevada. His favorite motto was, Fools rush in where angels fear to tread and more often than not succeed. Some fool. Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2,” are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at

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