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An Excel Based Module to Explore the Major Drivers of

Snowmelt During Rain-On-Snow Flooding Events

William Currier, Nic Wayand, & Jessica D. Lundquist
*University of Washington, Mountain Hydrology Research, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Seattle, WA, USA

Introduction: A rain-on-snow flooding event is defined by extreme rain falling


Precipitation Gauge

over a large extent of a snow-covered basin. Determining the contribution of

snowmelt during these events and determining the primary driver of the snowsurface energy balance (Figure 1) is a critical question for flood forecasters and is
not well understood due to sparse observations available over complex terrain.
Existing snow energy balance models used for research are cumbersome to set up
and run. Therefore, we have developed an Excel energy balance model that is
simple to set up, run and modify per the instructors goals. Our target audience is
upper-level high school students or entry level undergraduates who have taken a
physics course and had some exposure to climatology. We include data taken from
the Snoqualmie Pass research station (921 m) and three National Resource
Conservation Service SNOTEL stations in the Snoqualmie basin. The module
contains a PowerPoint presentation, a YouTube video and instructions for a hands
on lab. The entire module and all of its components can be viewed here.



Data to drive the model is taken from various locations:

1. The Snoqualmie Pass research station (Figure 3)
a. Data is archived and available in real time1
2. Three National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS)
a. Low through high elevation data is provided from the
2009 flood in the Snoqualmie Basin
II. Forcing data during different meteorological conditions is
provided to run this model and includes:
a. Air temperature
b. Wind speed
c. Relative humidity
d. Precipitation
e. Solar irradiance
f. Longwave irradiance
III. Additional Pacific Northwest Climate projections [Elsener et
al. 2010] are provided for students to discuss how changes
in mean winter air temperature and precipitation may
change rain-on-snow floods in the future.

Wind Speed

Air Temperature/


Snoqualmie Pass

Figure 3 (Right): a.) The location of Snoqualmie Pass (921 m) relative to the
Western U.S. and Canada. b.) The same location overlaid on a DEM. c.) The
meteorological tower run by the Washington State Department of Transportation at
Snoqualmie Pass d.) The meteorological tower run by the Mountain Hydrology
Research group at Snoqualmie Pass. e.) The location of the NRCS SNOTEL
stations. The red pixels in (e) show the metropolitan area of Seattle.

Figure 1: A simple schematic describing typical rain on snow conditions and the energy balance equation (Red
Box). Each component is annotated as follows:, SW Shortwave Radiation, LW Longwave Radiation, H
Sensible Heat Flux, Le Latent Heat Flux, P Precipitation, G Ground Head Flux.

Goals of the Module:

1. Introduce students to rain-on-snow floods.
2. Provide an interactive environment for students to understand the
energy balance equation and how different components change in
importance under different meteorological conditions.
3. Allow students to discuss and think about how rain-on-snow
events may change in the future.

Lab Exercise:

Results/Model Output (Runoff): The model assumes that the temperature

In the lab exercise there are instructions on how to run the model for various
meteorological conditions. Students are asked various questions such as:
1. What components provide the most energy on each type of day?
2. Comment on the importance of snowmelt vs. rainfall at different elevations during
the Snoqualmie flood. What is the ratio of snowmelt to rainfall at each elevation?
3. How could future climate scenarios impact rain-on-snow floods in the Snoqualmie
Basin and the Pacific Northwest?

throughout the snowpack is zero degrees Celsius, therefore any available energy is
used to melt the snowpack. Additionally there is no soil component to the model
and thus any rainfall is assumed to be available for runoff. The model automatically
updates its figures based on the meteorological conditions allowing the student to
simply and directly receive results from any perturbations in the forcing data. We
believe this will allow the students to gain a conceptual understanding between
different meteorological conditions, the resulting energy fluxes and subsequent

Results/Model Output (Energy Balance Components):

The model automatically outputs the snow surface energy balance components
based on the meteorological conditions. Figure 4 shows the resulting daily
average net energy balance components available to melt snow based on
different meteorological data. The model shows that the turbulent heat fluxes, H
and Le, account for 68% of the energy to drive snow melt during a typical rainon-snow event while on a typical spring sunny day with calm winds the solar
radiation is the primary driver of snowmelt.

Snow Surface Energy balance components. Daily average



Rain-on-snow flood destruction


The most recent rain-onsnow event in the Pacific

Northwest was the
Snoqualmie basin flood in
2009 (Figure 2).
Rain on snow floods
have caused millions of
dollars in damages and
have occurred from the
Alps to the Western U.S.



Typical Spring Day,

Calm Winds


2009 Snoqualmie
Flood Conditions



Additional Resources

Net Solar

Net Longwave

Sensible Heat Latent Heat Flux Heat from Rain


2009 Snoqualmie Flood Conditions

Ground Heat

Typical Spring Day, Calm Winds

Figure 4: A bar chart showing the amount of energy (W m-2) available at the surface based on meteorological conditions
at the middle elevation station during the 2009 Snoqualmie Flood and during a typical spring sunny day, with no winds
at Snoqualmie Pass.

All model components are available at:


Water Available for Runoff (mm)


Figure 5: The water available for runoff (mm) based on the energy balance from the middle elevation station in the
Snoqualmie Basin during the 2009 flood and during a typical spring sunny day, with no winds at Snoqualmie Pass.


Figure 2: Photo (Left) by Alan Berner/Seattle Times on Thursday (January 8,

2009), floodwaters inundate the Snoqualmie Valley. Photo by the Washington
State Dept. of Transportation of Interstate 5 (Right), south of Seattle closed due
to flooding

Radiometer (CNR4)


Elsener, M., L. Cuo, N. Voisin, J. Deems, A. Hamlet, J. Vano, K. Mickelson,. S. Lee, D. Lettenmaier, (2010), Implications of 21st century climate change for the hydrology of Washington State. Climatic Change, 1, 225-260

A YouTube video that briefly introduces the

students to the energy balance and rain-on-snow
flooding is provided. We believe that this could be
assigned as a homework assignment the night
before. A time-lapse video of the entire 2014
water year at Snoqualmie Pass is also available
to show the changing conditions at the site.
Citations for peer reviewed papers discussing
rain-on-snow events are also available.

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