Nevada celebrating 100th anniversary of J.E. Church’s technique that created science of snow sampling
The University of Nevada, Reno is marking the 100th anniversary of former classics professor James E. Church’s snow sampling. He developed the science of snow-sampling techniques, used worldwide today to predict seasonal water flow from mountain snowpacks.
Church arrived at Nevada in 1892 as a young professor of the classics and an enthusiastic mountaineer. He braved the snow in June 1905 and climbed to the 10,800-foot summit of Mount Rose for pleasure, but soon began his life’s most rewarding work. That year, Church established one of America’s first high-altitude, meteorological observatories.
“The notion of incorporating the classics with science is at the heart of why Nevada has decided to establish the Academy for the Environment,” said Jen Huntley-Smith, academy executive assistant. “Church truly embodied the spirit of linking the humanities to science; a philosophy that Nevada is continuing today.”
Church began studying snow in all of its phases in June 1905. He began laying the first western snow course that would be used to obtain temperature readings when he offered to climb Mount Rose, every month for a year.
In the following months, the Mount Rose Weather Observatory was established as a department at the university and the Agriculture Experiment Station. This marked the birth of snow sampling for forecasting water runoff in the West.
Church originally focused on mountain weather and climate because he wanted to better understand how to measure the depth and water content of snow in order to make accurate predictions about the quality of snowmelt runoff that would be available for irrigation during the coming season.
In the succeeding 10 years, Church developed the Mount Rose Snow Sampler along with other equipment that was used to record water content in extreme depths of snow.
Church’s snow-sampling instruments obtained records of pressure, temperature, humidity, wind movement, precipitation and sunshine. In 1935, Congress established the Federal-States Cooperative Snow Survey based on Church’s method. The practice continues today.
“Church was truly a man before his time,” said Dave Walker, research assistant to the state climatologist. “Today’s snow samplers are using nearly the exact equipment that Church developed at this university 100 years ago.”
Church had an office at the university until his death in 1959. The Church Fine Arts building on campus is named in his honor.
“Church’s snow-sampling research is important today because it gives scientists an idea of how much moisture is stored in mountain snow, helping to better understand water management in the West,” Walker said.
“Snow provides 50 to 80 percent of the year’s water supply.”
— Submitted by UNR’s public affairs office.