Reliving the birth of snow measurement | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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Reliving the birth of snow measurement

In 1906, a professor from the University of Nevada, Reno devised the world’s first snow surveying equipment that would measure water content – an important gauge for people in the arid Western United States.

It was a butter sampler that gave Dr. James E. Church the idea to drill a core sample from the snow and weigh it for water content calculations.

Acting in character as Dr. Church, U.S. Forest Service Natural Resource Specialist Steve Hale tells the history.



Dressed in flannel, with snowshoes strapped to his feet, “Dr. Church” was seen in the Saturday afternoon sun taking snow samples at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe.

“Have you seen a group of students wandering around here?” he asked. “I hope they’re not lost, it’s a long walk up from Callahan’s ranch (in the valley).”



Posing as the professor who died more than 50 years ago, Hale explained that is was an argument with loggers that inspired Church to measure the snow.

An insatiable need for lumber to support nearby mining operations in the last half of the 19th century turned Tahoe’s thick pine forests into a field of stumps. Loggers contended that cutting the thirsty timbers helped the Tahoe Basin’s snowpack.

Hale said Church disagreed, claiming that Tahoe’s giant conifers had no negative impact on water content.

The fight over water was called the “Tahoe Wars” and Church’s steel invention that weighed the snow’s water content helped him win the battle.

Adjusting his wool cap, Hale pulled out a metal stake much like the one used by Church at the beginning of the 20th century.

Picking an untouched patch of snow, Hale wrenched the stake into the snowpack. The sample was set on a scale.

By weighing the cylinder, Church was able to determine the water content and predict runoff in the spring. He was also able to prove that the loggers were wrong.

“The water content is about 22 percent,” Hale said, reading his measurement Saturday. “It’s kind of like Sierra cement – now that’s a catchy phrase.”

Church, who taught Latin, German and fine arts at UNR, was not a scientist by education.

Science was a hobby that blossomed from his love of the outdoors.

In 1896, Church was the first white man to stand on top of Mt. Rose’s lofty 10,800-foot summit in the winter months. A traditionalist, he used snowshoes instead of skis.

During his travels to the top, he started recording the snow conditions and developed the “Mount Rose Snow Sampler.”

Almost 100 years later, it’s still in use.

“The calculations are more mathematical now,” Hale said. “But they still use (Church’s Snow Sampler) to test the data – his calculations were about 90 percent accurate.”

Hale’s performance as Dr. Church is part of the Ski with a Ranger Program at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe. Ski with a Ranger is free and offered on Saturdays at 1:30 p.m. at the bottom of Lakeview chair lift. Other program topics include wildlife, fire suppression and archeological presentations.


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