Comparison of five snow water equivalent estimation methods across categories

Snow water equivalent (SWE) is an important indicator used in hydrology, water resources, and climate change impact. There are various methods of estimating SWE (falling in 3 categories: indirect sensors, empirical models, and process‐based models), but few studies that provide comparison across these different categories to help users make decisions on monitoring site design or method selection. Five SWE estimation methods were compared against manual snow course data collected over 2 years (2015–2016) from the Dorset Environmental Science Centre, including the gamma‐radiation‐based CS725 sensor, 3 empirical estimation models (Sexstone snow density model, McCreight & Small snow density model, and a meteorology‐based model), and the University of British Columbia Watershed Model snow energy‐balance model. Snow depth, density, and SWE were measured at the Dorset Environmental Science Centre weather station in south‐central Ontario, on a daily basis over 6 winters from 2011 to 2016. The 2 snow density‐based models, requiring daily snow depth as input, gave the best performance (R2 of .92 and .92 for McCreight & Small and Sexstone models, respectively). The CS725 sensor that receives radiation coming from soil penetrating the snowpack provided the same performance (R2 = .92), proving that the sensor is an applicable method, although it is expensive. The meteorology‐based empirical model, requiring daily climate data including temperature, precipitation and solar radiation, gave the poorest performance (R2 = .77). The energy‐balance‐based University of British Columbia Watershed Model snow module, only requiring climate data, worked better than the empirical meteorology‐based model (R2 = .9) but performed worse than the density models or CS725 sensor. Given differences in application objectives, site conditions, and budget, this comparison across SWE estimation methods may help users choose a suitable method. For ongoing and new monitoring sites, installation of a CS725 sensor coupled with intermittent manual snow course measurements (e.g., weekly) is recommended for further SWE method estimation testing and development of a snow density model.