NASA Is Making an Olympic Sport Out of Studying Snow in Pyeongchang

Snow at one of the Olympics sites in Pyeongchang. Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

What sets the Winter Olympics apart from the summer games? Snow, of course, which is why NASA is using this year's competitions to practice observing and predicting snow. It's all part of a project called the International Collaborative Experiments for Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, or ICE-POP, which will run through the end of the Paralympic Games on March 18.

ICE-POP is a collaboration of 11 countries and 70 instruments spread across the Pyeongchang region and builds on similar projects that took place at the Vancouver and Sochi games. But at Pyeongchang, there's a complicating factor: the Korean peninsula's geography. The interaction of the ocean, the Sea of Japan and an abrupt mountain range favors heavy snowfall conditions over rough terrain, which are just the sort of conditions to challenge scientists and the satellites they use to monitor the weather.

"We're trying to get as close as we can to the truth," Walt Petersen, a physical scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama in charge of the NASA instruments, told Newsweek. The instruments they're deploying include cameras so precise they can photograph an individual snowflake 400 times per second, as well as a radar system that can "slice and dice the snow clouds" to figure out how they're forming, Petersen said.

The instruments run basically continuously, and their measurements are combined with observations made from satellites to compare the two systems. In the long run, that will help scientists use satellite data more effectively when these special on-the-ground projects aren't running. "This is all about getting information on the column structure of the snow," Petersen said. "The satellite is looking down and that's what it sees, the structure in that column." From that point of view, it's easy for different layers to blend together.

The NASA team is also feeding their data into experimental forecasting models to see if they can find small tweaks that improve the standard models meteorologists use. Korea's weather service, which is running ICE-POP, will then tell them how close the predictions match what actually happens.

Read more: Winter Olympics: New Plastic Ice Turns Bobsledding Into A Year-Round Sport

NASA's goal with the project is not simply to better predict when we might have a snow day, of course. "Snowfall is a key freshwater resource for many people in the world," Petersen said, including in the American West. Snowfall is a crucial part of the water cycle, since snow that builds up through the winter then melts, providing fresh water for months to come.

Packing up instruments and shipping them out to Korea for the Olympics is an excellent way to bring scientists from around the globe together to tackle the challenge in ways that can help residents of all those countries. But Petersen will be watching the results from his office in Alabama. He visited Pyeongchang during the planning stages, but the Korean weather agency asked participating scientists to stay home if possible. "The hotels are awesome, but there's not enough of them," Petersen said.