Pioneer Sierra snow man: Robert W. Gerdel | SierraSun.com
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Pioneer Sierra snow man: Robert W. Gerdel

Mark McLaughlin

The Sierra Nevada snowpack is without a doubt Californias most valuable natural resource not for the economic benefit of winter sports, but because it supplies water runoff to nearly 70 percent of the states population. The snowpack provides high-quality melt-water to millions of people, as well as to industry, recreation, fisheries, agriculture and hydroelectric power generation. The earliest studies of the Sierra snowpack began here in the Truckee-Tahoe region with University of Nevada professor, Dr. James E. Church. Much has been written about Church for his pioneering work in developing the science of snow surveying in the early 20th century, a crucial tool for measuring and predicting water run-off from the Sierra snowpack. The first stages of this critical research into the hydrological complexities of mountain snowpacks began during World War II when government physicist, Dr. Robert Gerdel, moved to Sacramento to establish the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory at Soda Springs on Donner Summit. During the war, the federal government decided that more extensive scientific research was needed to advance the understanding of hydrologic and physical processes of snow. To facilitate this research, a Cooperative Snow Investigations Research Program (CSIRP) was established as a joint effort between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Weather Bureau. In 1943, Dr. Gerdel was the lead physicist at the U.S. Weather Bureau and was the Technical Director of the CSIRP based in Washington, D.C. As director, Dr. Gerdel was responsible for locating and designing three snow laboratories, supervising their construction, and developing the research program. Gerdel reviewed the climatological data for locations around the United States in search of the best sites to represent deep snow and intense cold. The research stations would be located in the mountainous West the Willamette Snow Laboratory in central Oregon, the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory in Soda Springs (CSSL) and the Upper Columbia Snow Lab near Flathead Lake, Mont. The sites reflect three distinct winter-precipitation regimes; mostly rain with some snow, mostly snow with some rain, and exclusively snow, respectively.

Gerdel was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on Oct. 4, 1901, but grew up at Escanaba in Michigans Upper Peninsula. When he was 12, a botched surgical procedure left him clinically deaf. A doctor had performed a successful tonsillectomy on the boys kitchen table, but an infection soon set in that permanently damaged his ear canals. Losing your sense of hearing is a life-changing event, but Gerdel never let this physical handicap interfere with his plans to become a scientist. Although his high school principal tried to have him committed to the Michigan School for the Deaf, Gerdel successfully persuaded the administrator to give him a chance. He learned to lip-read, checked the lecture notes of his fellow students and graduated with good grades. After high school, Gerdel attended Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (now Michigan State University) and graduated with a bachelors of science degree in Soil Physics and Chemistry. Not only was the course work challenging, but two of his professors dropped him from their classes due to his lack of hearing. Gerdel went on to earn masters and doctorate degrees from Ohio State University. Gerdel spent nearly two decades in Ohio working for the state and the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. He studied the chemistry and physics of soil there and became in expert in the freezing-thawing cycle as it relates to soil instability and erosion. In 1927, he married Grace Gilmor and they later had a son named Charles.In 1942, Dr. Gerdel and his young family moved to Sacramento where he spent two years designing the infrastructure of the snow laboratories. While the physical facilities of the Central Sierra Snow Lab were still in the planning stages, Gerdel installed temporary weather instruments behind the Soda Springs Hotel near Donner Pass. For a time, he and Dr. Church shared a small empty cabin behind the Soda Springs gas station, which they used as a base to conduct their related yet separate research. In 1943, Dr. Gerdel supervised the initial construction of the CSSL buildings and installation of the new equipment. In the first year of the labs operation, Dr. Gerdel and his staff produced the nations first comprehensive reports on instrumented studies of thermodynamics and hydrodynamics of deep, high mountain snowpacks. At the CSSL, Dr. Gerdel pioneered the use of radioactive material to measure the water content and density of the snowpack. During the summer months, individual isotopes of radioactive zinc were placed in remote locations north of Donner Summit and a Geiger counter was suspended over each one. The Geiger counters measured the pulses or oscillations caused by gamma rays emitted by the radioisotope the oscillations varied depending on the snowpacks density and water content. The radio-transmitted measurements gave the CSSL scientists constant, real-time data a breakthrough in the science of snow surveying.Today, the isotopic profiling snow gauges first designed by Dr. Gerdel are more sophisticated and one of the most accurate methods for measuring snow water equivalent. One version of a modern nuclear gauge utilizes two parallel, but separated vertical tubes, one of which contains the radioactive source, the other a detector. They are automatically raised out of their underground holds and lifted slowly through the snowpack. A density reading is obtained every centimeter as the tubes slide through the snowpack, which yields the snow water equivalent.The Donner Summit region of the Sierra proved to be a particularly well-suited area to launch the CSIRP. Long-term weather records for locations in western United States snow-zones are relatively rare, but Southern Pacific Transportation Company employees had begun measuring snowfall and snowpack at the railroads Summit Station at Norden in 1878. Later, precipitation data from three different National Weather Service sites in the area maintained the continuity of the regions weather measurements. In addition to providing reliable conditions for studying the physics of a deep snowpack, the Sierra snow lab was critically important to the federal and state control of Californias water supplies and flood control. The research conducted there allowed scientists and technicians to monitor snowfall and snow melt and to predict future needs of the States water delivery system known as the Central Valley Project (California aqueduct). When Robert Wallace Gerdel died 20 years ago on March 27, 1987, at the age of 85, he left behind a legacy of accomplishments. Well-known as a resourceful and professional physicist and engineer, Dr. Gerdel gained international recognition for his research work at snow hydrology laboratories in the United States, territorial Alaska and Greenland. Over the span of his career, Dr. Gerdel wrote more than 50 scientific papers that were published in technical and professional journals.Dr. Gerdels early efforts to investigate and improve our scientific understanding of the complexities of the vital Sierra snowpack laid the groundwork for a water management system that helped nourish and sustain the growth of California into an economic giant.Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books, The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm, Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2, and Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at mark@thestormking.com.


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