Water can be the Goldilocks of resources – too much and you have flooding, not enough and you have drought. Knowing whether water levels are “just right” is important information for flood forecasters, dam operators, farmers, and the public throughout the province.

This is why, each spring, you will find Jon Pedlar and the rest of the snowpack team – Kate Forbes, Scott Campbell and Rick Pickering – trekking out into some of Alberta’s highest and most remote locations, collecting information on the status of the mountain snowpack.

Operating out of Calgary, Jon monitors snowpack relating primarily to the Bow River Headwaters as well as the Red Deer River. Abandoning more traditional (or boring) transportation, Jon and his coworkers use skis, snowshoes, helicopters and snowmobiles to get to work. According to Jon, water is a precious resource and “monitoring the snowpack provides important information.”

Installing a snow pillow at House Mountain Lookout. Photo: Rick Pickering

One way to do snowpack monitoring is using “snow pillows” – a rubber bladder filled with antifreeze solution laid on the ground before the snow starts to fall. As snow piles up on the pillow, the weight of it pushes on the antifreeze solution inside the pillow. Satellites pick up these measurements hourly. “This enables us to determine the snow water equivalent at that location,” Jon says.

While snow pillows provide continuous data from one spot, snow surveying by hand, like what Jon and the rest of the team does, offers a better estimate because they can measure more spots in a particular location. More spots give us more data and more data means better accuracy. The process of snow sampling in the mountain snow packs is straightforward – Jon describes the process as taking snow core samples by sticking an aluminum tube into the snow. He then weighs the snow and converts that measurement to the amount of water it would produce if melted.

The hard part is getting there. “On a good day, the helicopter rides aren’t so bad,” says Jon. Nevertheless, the adventure is worth it; spending time in the great outdoors is what makes Jon’s job unique. Jon and his coworkers have entered the busiest time of year, with some of the lower elevation snowpack already beginning to melt. Jon gauges that levels are at 80% to 90% of the yearly average, depending on where you are looking. “We are at 90% in the Kananaskis area,” Jon estimates, “75% to 80% in Banff.”

The snowpack monitoring team will continue to take mountain samples through to May.