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Canadian technology marks future of snow studies

Researchers studying how sound waves travel through snow to produce snow property profiles

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"Penetrometers put a stick into the snow and measure the force it takes to break snow crystal bonds," Pomeroy explained. "The SAS2 uses sound to detect the physical interior of a snowpack, so is close to sonar, but it is a novel application of sonar and geophysical prospecting concepts."

Naturally, such innovative technology would be valuable beyond Canada's borders, said Dr. Danny Marks with the USDA Northwest Watershed Research Centre in Boise, Idaho.

"Sonar monitoring of snow depth has been around for more than a decade, but actually penetrating the snow to estimate mass, density, wetness, etc. is very new," Marks said. "Nicholas should apply for a patent quick, because the U.S. military will certainly be interested and is likely working on similar technology."

Switzerland, as one of the world's few countries where avalanches are socially and economically important, is keenly interested too.

Pomeroy said he's excited about the potential for commercialization. The SAS2 could provide information to be used in models of climate change and snowpack evolution which could help reduce uncertainty in water resources and climate change predictions. As well, the unit can discern strength characteristics and recognize objects such as logs and trees in the snowpack, including eventually, buried avalanche victims.

The next step would be to miniaturize the device so that it would attach to a ski pole and take a reading with every plant, and even be programmed to communicate with a smart phone. It could also be mounted on a robot to cover areas too large for a manual survey.

While the SAS2 is the way of the future, said Pomeroy, "I'm almost a bit sad because I love digging snow pits.

"You get to become one with the snow. You get to feel it, smell it, study the crystals. It's a way of life."

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