Climate change is affecting snowflakes, become a citizen scientist and measure the impacts!

A snowflake covered with rime, little pellets of ice. Lots of rime is known as graupel or soft hail. Photo:Kenneth Libbrecht, snowcrystals.com

In layman’s terms: climate change is causing snowflakes to melt faster and look less pointy and instead more rounded. That’s according to a WNYC report from last year on the research being conducted at Columbia University’s Earth Institute as to how warmer winter air is changing the way snowflakes form. Instead of giving up in despair, over the past year WNYC partnered with  Bronx Science and the New York Harbor School to develop a citizen scientist snowflake measuring kit so that non-scientists in the New York City area can take samples of snow and help researchers study the impacts. Students from the high schools helped test the kits to ensure that they are user-friendly and got the research off to a great start.

According to Dr. Jared Entin, a manager for the Terrestrial Hydrology program at NASA, scientists use satellite footage and drones to get a high-level view of snow, but they also need data about what’s happening on the ground. He told WNYC that “We need people out there taking all sorts of different observations. What NASA is doing at this point is trying to move beyond just ‘Is snow on the ground or not?’ and start to answer deeper questions like ‘How much water is actually stored in the snowpack?’”

To get a better sense of why this research is necessary this is what has been happening to snowflakes:

  • Normally, snowflakes form high up in the atmosphere, and crystallize into their pretty structures as they pass through cold layers of air.
  • However, with warmer temperatures, snowflakes can partially melt on their way down.
  • There’s more water in the air these days, and it acts like a glue that can glom onto the snowflakes, covering them with little ice pellets. Add in the wind and the snowflakes can smash together, turning into mega snowflakes.

WNYC worked with Dr. Marco Tedesco, a polar scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and his team to design the kits and the training materials. For the past couple of years, the team has been involved in several field experiments to look at snow properties in the New York region.

Why This Matters: Becoming a citizen scientist is not only inherently cool but can also really help researchers collect data that would otherwise be costly and difficult to collect. From helping seismologists measure seismic activity, to helping protect water quality, there are numerous opportunities for you to become a citizen scientist! If you live in the NYC area you can order your own snowflake kit from WNYC (with a site to help you use it) or if you live in a snowy area urge your local public radio station to adopt a similar program in collaboration with a research team.

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