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UW alum seeks to forecast perfect ski day through 3D snowflake photos

UW alum seeks to forecast perfect ski day through 3D snowflake photos
Photo of snowflake courtesy of Dr. Tim Garrett, University of Utah.

An Atmospheric Sciences professor at the University of Utah, who also holds a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Sciences from the University of Washington, is seeking to improve global snow forecasting through the simple act of taking photographs of snowflakes.

OK, so it's not simple. In fact, it's quite complex.

Prof. Tim Garrett is spearheading a crowdfunding effort through Microryza to use high speed, multi-angle digital photography to take 3-D photos of falling snowflakes in real-time. And in doing so, he wants to provide much better data to computer forecast models on how exactly snowflakes behave both in the clouds and during a snowfall.

Garrett says current forecast models use data from measurements of just a few hundred snowflakes collected by University of Washington researchers in the Cascades in the 1970s.

"Our goal is to improve the value of our technology and measurements for the scientific community and the public," Garrett wrote on is Microryza site.

He's trying to raise $16,000 to greatly improve their camera and lighting system in the hopes of capturing clear, 3-dimensional photos of the snowflakes.

"Unfortunately, while we have millions of pictures, it is only rarely that each of the multi-angle images is in crisp focus, and this makes the 3D reconstructions hard to do systematically," Garrett wrote. "The images need a better depth of field."

Garrett says it's the precise measurements of the snowflake's mass and shape that is key for the formulas used in computer forecast models.

"If all three cameras can consistently yield in-focus images, then atmospheric scientists will be able to better represent the relationship between snowflake form and fallspeed in weather models," he said.

Part of the funds will also go toward a smartphone app that will allow viewers to explore in real time snowflake shape from multiple angles and relate the shapes to snowflake fall speed, Alta Ski Area meteorology, snowfall amount, and snow density, Garrett said, and those who support the research will be the first recipients of this app.

"We hope to improve how well meteorologists can forecast winter weather -- so that you can get home safely, or maybe plan a 'sick day' at your local ski resort," Garrett said.

The Weather Channel helped produce this video that shows more information on his project:

For More Information:

How to donate: Tim Garrett's Microryza crowdfunding site

University of Utah article on Garrett's project

More photos of snowflakes in triplet/3D

Live Snowflake Camera from Utah's Alta Ski Area