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Q&A: Thomas Painter takes to the skies to measure snowpack.

Q&A: Thomas Painter takes to the skies to measure snowpack

31 October 2023

The data from the snow scientist’s company are vital for climate researchers and water managers.

Thomas Painter has worked at national labs. He has been a professor. And now he is CEO of the company he cofounded, Airborne Snow Observatories Inc (ASO). It’s “stunning” how similar being a principal investigator is to being a CEO, he says. “You come up with ideas, you communicate them with people, and you want people to adopt your ideas.”

Thomas Painter.
Credit: Airborne Snow Observatories Inc

ASO flies instruments over mountain basins to measure snow depth and reflectivity. Coupled with modeling of physical processes and ground measurements, the flight data are used to predict snowmelt and water runoff. Scientists can use the data to study how global warming is changing snowfall and snowmelt and how those changes affect everything from wildlife to global food security. The business side gives water managers the tools to make informed decisions about crop management, flood prevention, and more.

Steven Haugen, watermaster of the Kings River Water Association in Fresno, California, says that having ASO data “is invaluable in making decisions.” In a heavy snowfall year like last year, the data helped his team to “confidently start releasing water earlier in the season.” That, he explains, lowers the peak flow, reduces flood risk, and allows the groundwater to recharge. (See Physics Today, November 2023, page 18.)

Painter never imagined he’d become a businessman. But when his project was being squeezed out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), he leaped. “It was my baby and my team,” he says. “The notion of handing it off to some entity out there that was going to screw it up was not palatable.” So, in 2019, with three non-JPL colleagues, Painter got the exclusive license to use software his team at JPL had developed, and he set out to form a public benefit corporation.

PT: How did you get into snow?

PAINTER: I thought I was going to be a mathematician, like my dad. Then I had a head injury—I was playing tennis in high school, and I chased down a forehand and ended up running headfirst straight into the cinderblock practice wall in a full sprint. The injury shook up my thinking. It sent me down a different path.

I went to graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to work on remote sensing and snow hydrology. After about a week I realized this was what I was meant to do. It was the 1990s, which was an incredibly exciting time of computing capacity increases and a migration to a more physical basis for the Earth science disciplines. I earned my PhD in 2002.

PT: Where did your career take you?

PAINTER: I did a postdoc and then went to the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder as a research scientist for a few years. I started a program that explored the impacts of desert dust on snowmelt and snowmelt runoff.

Dust deposition into snowpack from deserts causes about a 5% loss in annual runoff from the Colorado River. The same thing is happening in the Himalayas and the Alps. There has been a huge increase in dust deposition since the 1800s. With the Industrial Revolution, humans started penetrating into the interiors of continents. That is when we see the disturbance of those desert areas commence. And it’s been reinforced by climate change.

PT: Why did you decide to move into academia?

PAINTER: I love teaching and interacting with students. I thought that was going to be my path. In 2007 I went to the geography department at the University of Utah.

PT: But you didn’t stay too long, did you?

PAINTER: I realized within about a month that the staccato nature of a faculty position didn’t work well with my brain: You work on a paper for a half hour, go teach, hold office hours, get 15 minutes to work on your paper, go to a faculty meeting. I really needed to be working full time on research.

After three years, Utah was going to put me up for tenure early. Then I got recruited by JPL to build their snow hydrology program, and specifically to build an airborne stepping-stone to space-based monitoring of snowpack. It was a hard decision, but my wife and I decided to move to southern California to JPL. Again, in the first few weeks I realized it was the right place for me.

PT: What progress did you make on airborne snow monitoring at JPL?

PAINTER: Flying in California, we provided the first maps of the spatial distribution of the snow-water equivalent. Getting that for water basins had been the holy grail of hydrology. And after a couple of years of analyzing our data, people on the water management side in California—in particular Hetch Hetchy Water and Power in San Francisco—realized our quantification of snowpack was strongly indicative of total runoff.

That was in the summer of 2014. Then 2015 hit. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains was the lowest on record that year. There was no snow at the elevations where the snow pillows are. [Snow pillows are devices that weigh snow in situ; about 150 of them dot the Sierra Nevada.] Nobody really knew how much water was in the snowpack—they just knew it was horrible.

California had been covering about one-third of the cost of the JPL program in the early years but then transitioned to paying the majority.

A map of snow depth on Quandary Peak, Colorado.
This map of snow depth on Quandary Peak in Colorado uses data from airborne lidar. Credit: Airborne Snow Observatories Inc

PT: Why did JPL drop your program?

PAINTER: In about 2018, JPL leadership wanted to get more office space and more buildings. The lab was growing on the planetary side of things with its Mars missions. The pressure built to move out noncore activities, either to hand them off to other agencies or move them into the private sector. The airborne snow monitoring was one of the most visible of those.

PT: So you took your JPL activities and started a business. How did that process go?

PAINTER: I had three cofounders—two scientists and a water manager with a business background. What we do is rather capital intensive, and we needed to hire people out of JPL. Our funder is a wealthy business owner in the technology sector who prefers not to be identified.

People ask if I was terrified leaving a secure job for this. But we knew we had a customer base—irrigation districts and utilities; municipal, state, and federal entities. We knew that our measurements would be critical for our customers. And we knew that nothing would come along that would displace us. Satellite measurements are not granular enough. Radar can’t penetrate forest canopy. That gave us the confidence to go ahead and make this happen.

We started out with eight employees. We now have 28, and we are growing.

PT: How do the flights work?

PAINTER: We lease the planes, twin turboprops, and keep instruments on board. We use multiwavelength spectroscopy to measure snow albedo, and with lidar you can measure snow depth accurately. We calibrate to make sure we know where every pixel on the ground is, and where every laser pulse is striking. For each flight, we have two pilots and one instrument operator. They cover about 4000 square kilometers in six hours. They go up to 22 000 feet and fly back and forth and mow the basin. Last year we did about 90 flights in California, Colorado, and Oregon.

PT: How do you want to grow the business?

PAINTER: We have been working in Norway, and it looks like we will be growing in the Alps. Part of our mission is to take this globally everywhere that we can go, where there are snowpack resources and the geopolitics will accommodate.

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