Revolution in the Slopes: NASA’s Space Lasers Unlock Secrets of Snow!

Revolution in the Slopes: NASA's Space Lasers Unlock Secrets of Snow!

In an extraordinary advancement for environmental monitoring, NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) is revolutionizing our understanding of snowpack and water resources.

This high-tech satellite, which orbits Earth every three months, employs cutting-edge laser technology to map the planet in intricate three-dimensional detail​​. The core of this innovation lies in ICESat-2’s laser, split into six beams, allowing for unprecedented precision in measuring Earth’s surface​​.

The ICESat-2 mission, which uses an Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS), emits 10,000 laser pulses per second. Each pulse releases about 20 trillion photons, of which only a dozen return to the satellite, providing highly detailed data about the Earth’s surface, including snowpack and water bodies​​.

Traditionally, snowpack estimates were derived from computer models and spot measurements, which could vary significantly across different locations. Now, with the ICESat-2 satellite, scientists like University of Washington doctoral candidate Hannah Besso have the ability to measure snowpack in vast areas, such as the Methow Valley in Washington and the Tuolumne River Basin in Yosemite National Park, with astonishing accuracy​​.

The implications of this technology for water resource management are profound. Half of the United States population relies on rivers or precipitation-dependent lakes for their drinking water.

Internationally, 80% of water withdrawals are from surface water bodies. The high-resolution observations provided by ICESat-2 are crucial in improving estimates of water resources and managing them effectively​​.

In the face of climate change, this technology becomes even more significant. With increasing variability in snowpack depth, earlier melting, and the potential for less snow overall, the ability to accurately predict where and when snow will melt in the mountains is becoming increasingly crucial.

The data from ICESat-2 will enable more accurate forecasting of floods and droughts, as well as improved understanding of high-latitude hydrology and lake storage​​​​.

NASA’s response to the need for better water management is not just limited to launching ICESat-2. Through its Early Adopter program, NASA and its partners are working to incorporate satellite-derived data into various water management systems globally.

This includes the USDA Water Level Monitoring of Lakes and Reservoir system and the Global Flood Partnership’s operational global flood monitoring system. These efforts aim to provide critical observations and modeling infrastructure needed to rapidly identify and respond to extreme water-related events​​.

ICESat-2’s data will be a game-changer in terms of global water availability understanding. It provides decision-makers with precise information on water available for drinking, agriculture, and industrial processes.


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Lisa Hayden-Matthews

Lisa Hayden-Matthews

An avid Skier, bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.

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