PSD Researchers Receive CIRES Outstanding Performance Award

April 22, 2011

Paul Johnston, Dave Costa, and Dave Carter receiving award

A snow-level radar at Pine Flat Dam, California

Paul Johnston, Dave Costa and Dave Carter of the Physical Sciences Division (PSD) received a Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) Outstanding Performance Award for scientific and engineering achievement at the annual 'CIRES Rendezvous' meeting in Boulder, CO. The three researchers (along with federal colleagues Jim Jordan and Tom Ayers of PSD) designed, prototyped, built, and deployed a new network of snow-level radars in California for a joint project with the California Department of Water Resources and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The snow level, the altitude in the atmosphere where snow changes into rain, is a critical parameter influencing runoff in mountainous watersheds because it determines the surface area of the watershed that will be exposed to rain versus snow. When the snow level is above most or all of the terrain in a watershed, a storm is more likely to produce enough rapid runoff to cause flooding. On the other hand, if the snow level is low in a watershed, then the storm increases the snowpack, providing valuable storage of water for potential later use.

Radar instruments typically used to measure snow level have been prohibitively expensive, particularly for statewide monitoring of water resources and flood control issues. In response to this need, the PSD researchers employed modernized frequency-modulated, continuous wave (FMCW) technology, which uses less than a watt of transmitted power. These new snow-level radars were built for about one tenth of the cost of previous radar instrumentation used to measure the snow level, and will allow scientists to more efficiently monitor this key variable over time. In addition, the team designed creative ways to process the data and generate radar profiles, and the new technology is already being applied to new fields, including wind profiling.

Contact: Allen White