It looks like we are going to get some snow this year, which means near the first of every month a regiment of data collectors will be skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, and driving (where possible) in search of these signs. Why? Because, thanks to James E. Church, we have a standardized way to measure the depth and water-content within the Sierra Nevada.
Church, born in 1869 in Holly, Michigan – a place where he no doubt got more than a little experience with the white stuff – received his Ph. D. in Germany, at the University of Munich. From there he traveled to the University of Nevada, Reno, to teach languages and fine arts. He was an avid mountaineer and allegedly was the first white man to reach the top of Mount Rose in the winter. (Those of us from Reno consider Mount Rose a constant companion, since the peak can be seen from almost anywhere in the city)
His most famous contribution, however, was the Mount Rose Snow Sampler. Inspired by a butter sampler, the device is elegant and ingenious: a tube of a set diameter and length, which is driven into the snowpack and then weighed to determine the water content.
Church was originally provoked into inventing the device by loggers, who argued that by cutting down trees they were actually preventing those ruthless conifers from sucking up all the water produced when the snow melted. Church, the data he collected with his snow sampler, and an analysis of that data, proved that the trees were innocent.
Which brings us back to the orange sign with the funny symbol. It’s still important to collect snow data, even if it is no longer necessary to provide exculpatory evidence for conspiratorial pine trees. It is used to predict spring runoffs and to give planners some idea what the water supply will be during the spring, summer, and fall.
Critical to making the data useful is to take the samples at the same spot, around the first of the month, year after year after year. That’s where these signs come in. Each marks the beginning, end, or intermediate leg of what is known as a “snow course.” Careful measurements are made from these signs (a certain distance in a certain direction) so that each month, in each year, the data comes from the same spots.
There are about 230 snow courses in California, alone.
A special thanks to Mr. Frank Gehrke, of California Cooperative Snow Survey Program for his assistance with this post!