Validating reconstruction of snow water equivalent in California's Sierra Nevada using measurements from the NASA Airborne Snow Observatory
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1002/2016WR018704
Accurately estimating basin-wide snow water equivalent (SWE) is the most important unsolved problem in mountain hydrology. Models that rely on remotely sensed inputs are especially needed in ranges with few surface measurements. The NASA Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) provides estimates of SWE at 50 m spatial resolution in several basins across the Western U.S. during the melt season. Primarily, water managers use this information to forecast snowmelt runoff into reservoirs; another impactful use of ASO measurements lies in validating and improving satellite-based snow estimates or models that can scale to whole mountain ranges, even those without ground-based measurements. We compare ASO measurements from 2013 to 2015 to four methods that estimate spatially distributed SWE: two versions of a SWE reconstruction method, spatial interpolation from snow pillows and courses, and NOAA's Snow Data Assimilation System (SNODAS). SWE reconstruction downscales energy forcings to compute potential melt, then multiplies those values by satellite-derived estimates of fractional snow-covered area to calculate snowmelt. The snowpack is then built in reverse from the date the snow is observed to disappear. The two SWE reconstruction models tested include one that employs an energy balance calculation of snowmelt, and one that combines net radiation and degree-day approaches to estimate melt. Our full energy balance model, without ground observations, performed slightly better than spatial interpolation from snow pillows, having no systematic bias and 26% mean absolute error when compared to SWE from ASO. Both reconstruction models and interpolation were more accurate than SNODAS.