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Open-source software improves snow research

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By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – All over the world, snow researchers and snow scientists dig holes in the snow. They look at the snow crystals, feel for strong and weak layers, and take measurements in order to predict and better understand avalanches. But snow science recently took an about-face, thanks to the open-source software known as SnowPilot.

Doug Chabot of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center launched the SnowPilot Project during the winter of 2003-2004 after software developer Mark Kahrl wrote the program, hoping to find a way for researchers to collaborate and share their data on snow.

“Avalanche forecasters and snow researchers all over the world, they record snow pit data,” Chabot said. “We all dig holes in the snow and say what we see using a common language.”

But what Chabot realized in the early 2000s was that a large portion of snow data was being put away in desk drawers, never to be used. So he asked the question, what if we create a platform where researchers can enter their data into a worldwide database? And what if that database is accessible to everyone?

In 2016, the software program was made available online, and due to Bozeman mountaineer Conrad Anker’s assistance finding a donor, the program is available for free. Over 1,400 users from 19 countries have entered data into the program, amounting to 11,500 individual snow pits.

Tom Leonard, Yellowstone Club’s Director of Snow Safety, said SnowPilot is allowing for a remarkable change in how snow science is done.

In the past, researchers drew graphs and took notes by hand, in notebooks that ultimately were stored in dusty desk drawers. Now, rather than boxes upon boxes of measurements and observations gathering dust, snow data is stored electronically and can easily be accessed by many.

“A local guy spearheaded that change from old school to new age electronics,” Leonard said. “We should all appreciate how much effort he has put into this and the way everybody in the business records their data.”

A typical user’s experience with the program might include a member of ski patrol entering snow pit data for a certain basin, which can then be made public or can be shared privately. If the data is made public, another researcher may access the database with a specific question in mind and could use the ski patroler’s snow pits for data.

“It’s physically hard digging these snow pits,” Chabot said, adding that the challenge and time it takes can be a limiting factor in the number of pits a researcher studies. “Instead of only looking at 50, we’ve got 11,500 for you to work with.”

In using the SnowPilot database, researchers are able to answer questions and make forecasts based upon a robust dataset that includes snow data taken in different climates at various times of the year, something that has never been available before.

“SnowPilot is backwards in that we’re gathering all of the data, then we can ask questions,” Chabot said.

Chabot added that anyone who’s taken a level 1 avalanche course should be able to use the program. And according to Leonard, “If you’re a snow nerd, if you get your head in the snow and you read the avalanche reports, it’s just another tool to understand the area snowpack before you head out for the day.”

To learn more about SnowPilot or to request access to the software, visit

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