History of the Sierra Snow Lab | SierraSun.com

History of the Sierra Snow Lab

Mark McLaughlin
Photo courtesy Gerdel Collection
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Editors note: this is the first in a two-part series.

A massive storm in early March flashed us to within spitting distance of normal water content in the Central Sierra snowpack, but there hasn’t been enough precipitation since to keep us from sliding to 85 percent of average for the date. Not too bad, but since regional reservoirs are depleted from previous dry winters it will make water and reservoir management tough business this year.

The Sierra Nevada snowpack is California’s most valuable natural resource, and not because of the popularity of winter sports. When all that frozen precipitation melts it supplies more than half of the Golden State’s total water supply. The first attempts to study this vital resource got underway right here in the Lake Tahoe/Donner Summit region.

The earliest studies of California’s vital mountain snowpack began with Dr. James E. Church, a Michigan native who was hired in 1892 by the University of Nevada in Reno to teach Latin and Greek. Known as the “Father of Snow Surveying,” Church was ready to return home after he arrived in Reno and watched a man shot in a saloon gunfight die at his feet. Lucky for us he gazed up at Mount Rose, which towers impressively above the city and decided to stay.

Dr. Church is well known for his pioneering work in the science of snow surveying during the early 20th century. In 1905, he established the first Sierra weather observatory atop 10,776-foot-high Mt. Rose (southwest of Reno) and later developed procedures for measuring the depth of snow and its water equivalent. Church learned snow is an elastic substance and its depth does not indicate the amount of water in it.

Church’s research investigating forest influences on mountain snowpacks led him to design the Mt. Rose Snow Sampler, a hollow metal tube that hydrologists thrust plumb into the snowpack to extract a core of snow. The sample core is then weighed on a specially calibrated, portable scale to determine its water content, a simple but effective system still used today.

Church made news in 1911 when he used his snow sampling system to predict the seasonal (spring) rise in Lake Tahoe’s water level. Winter storms had dumped nearly 50 feet of snow on the Sierra and Church’s data enabled water managers to avoid damaging floods that spring.

For decades California and Nevada fought over water rights on the Truckee River and its primary source, Lake Tahoe. Early in the 20th century, the two states were in the midst of a bitter water war. By providing officials with streamflow forecasts to better manage storage in Lake Tahoe, Church’s new forecasting tools subdued the conflict. Expanding the snow surveys outside the Tahoe Basin dramatically improved the accuracy of runoff predictions for the Truckee River, Reno’s main water source.

Church made many important contributions to snow and water management. But Church didn’t have the equipment or academic training to delve more deeply into the complex physical structure of the snowpack. A major advance for scientific research into the Sierra Nevada snowpack came in 1945 when U.S. Weather Bureau physicist Dr. Robert W. Gerdel was directed to build the Central Sierra Snow Research Laboratory at Soda Springs.

During World War II, government officials recognized the need to improve the management of the country’s precious western water resources. For several years the Army Corps of Engineers encountered problems determining spillway design for floods and the Weather Bureau was having trouble meeting its responsibilities for streamflow forecasting.

In 1943, the Weather Bureau partnered with the University of Nevada to establish the Soda Springs Snow Research Project to learn more about the inner workings of the Sierra snowpack. Church had been studying snow in the region for years, but the Weather Bureau sent out Robert W. Gerdel, a physicist who had extensive technical training. Based in Sacramento, Gerdel was in charge of the technical aspects of the Soda Springs research project, with an emphasis on studying the hydro-dynamics of snowmelt and its relationship to runoff. Staff engineers were directed to use the information to help develop flood control structures.

In 1945, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Weather Bureau joined forces to organize the Cooperative Snow Investigations Research Program (CSIRP) and Dr. Gerdel was appointed Technical Director. Gerdel had an aptitude for engineering as well as a strong drive for accuracy and professional competence.

As Technical Director of CSIRP, Gerdel was responsible for locating and building three federal snow laboratories. Key objectives were to solve design problems for multi-purpose reservoirs and improve runoff forecasting for energy and irrigation supplies, as well as flood control. Already familiar with the Donner Pass region, he chose Soda Springs to establish the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory. It’s in a region that receives significant annual snowfall, but is also subject to heavy winter rain. The other two labs were located in Oregon and Montana.

The Snow Investigations Program wasn’t organized until 1945, but due to his earlier work with the Soda Springs Snow Research Project, Gerdel had installed an instrument array behind the Soda Springs Hotel to study weather and the mountain snowpack. During the winter of 1943-1944, resources were scarce due to the war effort and Gerdel and Church had to share an abandoned gasoline station next to the hotel as a base to conduct their research. These two men were very different in temperament and training, but both would spend most of their lives studying and reveling in the mysteries of snow and ice.

Conducting snow science at storm-wracked Donner Pass is a real challenge, but Dr. Gerdel had been overcoming adversity most of his life. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on Oct. 4, 1901, Robert Gerdel grew up in the snow country of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When he was 12-years-old a doctor had performed a successful tonsillectomy on the Gerdel family’s kitchen table, but a bad infection permanently damaged his ear canals and left him deaf. When Gerdel entered high school the principal tried to have him committed to the Michigan School for the Deaf, but Gerdel successfully persuaded the administrator to give him a chance. He learned to lip-read went on to earn masters and doctorate degrees in physics and chemistry from Ohio State University.

By late 1945 construction was well underway on the federal lab at Soda Springs. Once the two-story research building was completed, Gerdel supervised the installation of its state-of-the-art electronic equipment. Church was not part of the federal Snow Investigations Program, but he continued to operate out of his small facility behind the Soda Springs Hotel. He would spend many more years sharing his knowledge of snow science, but there was no doubt the arrival of Gerdel and the establishment of the new snow lab represented a transition to more advanced research technologies. The scientists at the lab did use the Church-designed snow samplers to measure water content, but they also recorded solar radiation, the temperatures of air, snow and soil, wind velocities and more.

The staff at the Soda Springs lab included a physicist (Gerdel), hydrologic engineer, meteorologist and an engineering aid. The hydrologic engineer in charge of the snow surveying courses was Ashton Codd, a University of Nevada graduate and longtime protege of Dr. Church. The meteorologist Bill Enloe had previously spent three winters in Alaska and was well acquainted with mountain weather conditions. Parley Merrill was an experienced engineer who assisted each of his colleagues in their own special projects. All the men were good skiers, except Gerdel who preferred snowshoes. It was the dawn of a new era for snow science and mountain water management.

” Weather Historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning writer and photographer. He can be reached at mark@thestormking.com.

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