How much snow accumulates in North America each year? More than scientists thought

If distributed evenly, 7.5 inches of snow would cover the entire continent

COLUMBUS, Ohio—There’s a lot more snow piling up in the mountains of North America than anyone knew, according to a first-of-its-kind study.

Scientists have revised an estimate of snow volume for the entire continent, and they’ve discovered that snow accumulation in a typical year is 50 percent higher than previously thought.

In the journal Geophysical Research Letters, researchers at The Ohio State University place the yearly estimate at about 1,200 cubic miles of snow accumulation. If spread evenly across the surface of the continent from Canada to Mexico, the snow would measure a little over 7.5 inches deep. If confined to Ohio, it would bury the state under 150 feet of snow.

Most of the snow accumulates atop the Canadian Rockies and 10 other mountain ranges. And while these mountains compose only a quarter of the continent’s land area, they hold 60 percent of the snow, the researchers determined.

The research represents an important step toward understanding the true extent of fresh water sources on the continent, explained doctoral student Melissa Wrzesien, lead author on the paper.

“Our big result was that there’s a lot more snow in the mountains than we previously thought,” she said. “That suggests that mountain snow plays a much larger role in the continental water budget than we knew.”

It’s currently impossible to directly measure how much water is on the planet, said Michael Durand, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State. “It’s extremely important to know—not just so we can make estimates of available fresh water, but also because we don’t fully understand Earth’s water cycle.”

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