PLYMOUTH — Snow depth and temperature, two pieces of data that could lead to a better understanding of avalanches in Tuckerman Ravine and flooding downstream, are poised to be collected thanks to the ingenuity of a group of Plymouth State University students and researchers.
The group, which includes 10 undergraduate and graduate students, hand-built six depth and temperature recorders. They were led by Eric Kelsey, research assistant professor of atmospheric science at PSU and the director of research at the Mount Washington Observatory.
The group started installing the battery-powered recorders Nov. 11 on Mount Washington along the Tuckerman Ravine Trail at an elevation of 2,500 to 3,900 feet, below the bowl of Tuckerman Ravine. The last of the recorders is expected to go live by Christmas, Kelsey said.
Every two to three weeks, members of what Kelsey is calling the snowpack-sensing project will hike up to replace the batteries and data cards. Kelsey hopes that eventually the recorders can be solar-powered and transmit data in real time.
Hydrologically speaking, snowpack data can be used to predict flooding, said Kelsey, which is why one of the snowpack-sensing project’s first clients is the National Weather Service’s Northeast River Forecast Center in Norwood, Mass.
The snowpack is also of great interest to the U.S. Forest Service’s Mount Washington Avalanche Center, which Kelsey said is the project’s other client.
He said the snowpack is “highly variable” in terms of both water content and temperature, “and just taking a few measurements won’t show you that variability.”
“Satellites can only tell us so much,” he said.
He said he’s proud of what he and his students – employing their wits and a $6,000 “seed grant” from PSU – have been able to do so far.
Recorders with capabilities similar to those of PSU’s are commercially available, said Kelsey, but can cost several thousand dollars each. The PSU recorders cost about $300 each.
The heart of the recorders is a microcontroller that receives input from the plug-and-play sensors. The entire unit is mounted into an 8.5-foot ladder of PVC tubing. All of the recorder components can be easily purchased off-the-shelf, according to Kelsey.
“We can build the same type of sensors for a third to a tenth of the cost and therefore we’re able to make more of them,” said Kelsey, a 1999 graduate of Nashua High School.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in atmospheric science at the University of Missouri, Kelsey enrolled at the State University of New York-Albany, where he earned a master’s degree.
He returned to the Granite State to attend the University of New Hampshire, where he received a doctorate in paleoclimatology. He joined the PSU faculty in July 2012.
“It’s a very exciting project that helps us to understand what’s happening with our snowpack and how our winters are changing,” Kelsey said of the snowpack-sensing. “I love winter, and when you can merge all of those things (with research in Tuckerman Ravine) what could be better?”
The Mount Washington Avalanche Center is currently rating the risk of avalanche as moderate. “It’s important to remember that you only need to be wrong once in your assessment of a slope,” its website states. “Do the right thing and have everyone in your party bring beacons, probes and shovels and travel one at a time through high-consequence terrain.”