Citizen scientists with smartphones

Researchers ask the community to help collect snowflake data

DRI’s Snow Kit is comprised of a macro lens, a snow crystal card and a thermometer.

DRI’s Snow Kit is comprised of a macro lens, a snow crystal card and a thermometer.


Members of the community can add photos to the Stories in the Snow database, a citizen science project run by Desert Research Institute. A Snow Kit can be purchased for $15 at

Some smartphone apps request access to a user’s location. Or they ask for personal data like an email address. Information like this fills giant databases programmed to analyze customer habits and demographics. Out of convenience, it’s easy to simply grant access to personal information, hoping the app companies have our best interests in mind, assuming we’re simply just miniscule dots in the enormous scatter plots of “big data.”

But when the Desert Research Institute’s app requests information, its designers don’t see their users as consumers. They see them as scientists. It’s a project called “Stories in the Snow.” App users are encouraged to upload photos of snowflakes in the Citizen Science App. DRI uses the photos to understand more about atmospheric conditions throughout the Truckee Meadows and the Lake Tahoe Basin. This method of collecting data is considered “citizen science.”

To become a citizen scientist, people in the area can order DRI’s “Snow Kit.” The kit is comprised of a macro lens, a snow crystal card and a thermometer. The macro lens is a magnifying glass attached to a rubber band that fits around a smartphone positioned over the camera sensor. Photos are enlarged to four times their original zoom, allowing close-up images of the crystalline structure of freshly fallen snowflakes. Photos are tagged with location time and other observations before being uploaded to the Citizen Science application. Participants are also encouraged to share their photos on other social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook.

“They’re trying to recruit a bunch of people to basically take photos of snow where they are, and I’m one of those people,” said Jesse Ward-Karet, who lives on Kingsbury Grade near South Lake Tahoe. Ward-Karet is an avid skier who heard about the project on Facebook.

Whenever snow is in the forecast, the network of Stories in the Snow users get email notifications prompting them to prepare to catch snowflakes and photograph them for the database.

“The shape of a snow crystal is determined by temperature and humidity,” said Meghan Collins, the project’s education lead. “The reason we want people to photograph snowflakes is because they contain a little bit of a history of what happened to that flake between its formation and falling to the ground.” So far, Collins’s team has received a few dozen submissions to their database, mostly from the storm cycle that hit the Lake Tahoe area the week of Jan. 22.

She said that meteorologists monitor weather stations located at the top of Mount Rose, Donner Summit and throughout the region. They’re also collecting weather data through satellites. By triangulating snow crystal picture data submitted by citizen scientists, the meteorologists are able to advance their understanding of what’s going on in the evolution of a snowstorm.

Sage Ridge Middle School students practiced with salt crystals so they’ll be ready to photograph snowflakes when the next storm hits.


Collins said that one application of the research is to validate the use of cloud seeding. DRI heads a project that disperses ice-forming silver iodide particles into clouds from cloud-seeding generators to boost the amount of snow produced by a storm. According a 2009 press release from DRI, cloud seeding has boosted water in the snowpack by an average of 18,000 acre-feet per year.

Collins also said that scientists are also hoping to use the snowflake photos to identify correlations between snow crystal types and avalanche frequency.

Scientists of all ages

Although Stories in the Snow is open for anyone with a smartphone, the majority of the participants are students in the Reno/Tahoe area.

“I had a general sense that we both could turn this into an educational program for schools as well as run it as something for public interest,” said Collins.

Last year, Collins and her team piloted the program at four schools in the area, loaning the Snow Kits to science classrooms and giving demonstrations on how to take photos of the snowflakes. This year, with funding from the Nevada NASA Space Grant Consortium and the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, Stories in the Snow is reaching 15 classrooms in Reno, Truckee and in Douglas County, primarily at middle schools and high schools.

“In seventh grade, we do a lot with scientific method and investigation, so I figured this would be good practice,” said Michelle Gallivan-Wallace, who teaches seventh and eighth grade science at Sage Ridge Middle School in South Reno.

While explaining the Stories in the Snow project to the seventh graders, Collins gave a short lesson on the science of snow. Then she let the students practice using the snow kits. With a lack of fresh snowflakes, the students went out to the schoolyard to photograph evidence of wildlife, plant life and minerals.

“We’ll keep an eye on the forecast, and I can send the kits home with them,” said Gallivan-Wallace. If it snows during school, the students will be allowed to collect data during class. She said that in addition to submitting the photos and data to DRI, they will be analyzing their findings in the classroom. She praised DRI for having reached out to schools and for showing her students how science is applied in the real world.

“I like when you learn stuff, but you get to go outside and do something with it,” said Sarah Bruce, a 13-year-old seventh grader. “I personally want to see the symmetry of the snow.”