‘Father of snow surveying’ is honored
RENO (AP) – In a career that spanned nearly 50 years at the University of Nevada, Reno, James Church was a beloved Latin language and literature professor. But it was his contribution to science outside the classroom that was honored this week by state and federal officials.
A century ago, Church developed the science of snow surveying to predict stream runoff from mountain ranges across the West, as well as floods and droughts.
His techniques, still used by the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service and other agencies, continue to benefit millions of farmers and other water users worldwide.
Not bad for a Michigan native who was ready to return home when he arrived in Reno in 1892 and watched a man fall dead at his feet in the street after a saloon gunfight.
“James Church is one of the most renowned figures in the history of water supply management,” Deputy Agriculture Undersecretary Merlyn Carlson said at a campus ceremony Tuesday before presenting a plaque to the university recognizing Church’s contributions.
“Thanks to him, we have 100 years of snow surveying data. This information is crucial to everyone who uses or drinks water,” he said.
Water experts always knew there was a correlation between snowpack and runoff, but before Church they were unable to accurately predict runoff because the water content of snow varies within the snowpack, said Jeffrey Underwood, Nevada state climatologist.
Church’s technique of using a tube to pull out columns of snow along fixed, straight lines was the breakthrough that allowed water content to be factored into the equation, he said.
“He was the first to be able to quantify the water content of snow and the amount of streamflow one would expect from that,” Underwood said. “After he published his runoff forecasts, the science exploded.”
Known as the “father of snow surveying,” Church helped Russia, China, Canada, Greenland and other counties set up similar systems, said Lawrence Clark, a deputy chief at the Conservation Service.
“It’s a world-class innovation and it’s been replicated many times around the world,” Clark said, adding snow surveying is vitally important to any country that depends on snowpack as a water source.
Church was a Renaissance man who had wide interests until he died in 1959 at the age of 90, said Tim Gorelangton, a Church scholar and Reno public librarian.
Church founded a high-elevation weather observatory above Reno as well as the Nevada Art Gallery. He traveled to Greece to study the ancients and to Greenland to study the snow. He was a longtime Sierra Club member and avid outdoorsman.
The Church Fine Arts Complex on the UNR campus was named after him, and the ashes of both Church and his wife were placed in its cornerstone.
“He had this insight about how to accurately project runoff, which is interesting because by training he wasn’t a scientist,” Gorelangton said.
“He brought a different approach to the problem that maybe a technical person wouldn’t. It shows people can do different things and be multitalented,” he said.
Among those who attended the campus ceremony were Church’s great-grandson, Ken Church of Seattle, and two great-nieces, Lois Shaver of Henderson and Elsie Shaver Perske of El Centro, Calif.
“Most of the stories about him seem bigger than life and hard to believe,” said Church, 49, a Microsoft search engine developer. “He did great science, but I think there are other things more important about him – his love of the outdoors, classics and art, and teaching.”
The great-nieces said their father helped the “Snowman” – Church’s nickname – with his snow survey work in the Sierra above Reno through the 1920s.
“We realized a long time ago that Uncle Ward, as we called him, was different,” Shaver said. “He was very quiet, very calm and very low key, yet he was a warm, sweet man. We’re pleased to see him get the recognition he deserves.”
Gorelangton said Church was ready to return home on his first day in Reno after he witnessed the street shooting, and he initially was unimpressed with the tiny campus.
He was walking back to the train station when he happened to gaze up at 10,776-foot Mount Rose, which towers above the city to the southwest.
“He was so captivated by its beauty that he changed his mind and stayed,” Gorelangton said. “The first snow survey courses on the planet were on Mount Rose because of him. It all started up there.”
The north summit of the mountain was named Church Peak in his honor in 1980.
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