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article imageNASA using Winter Olympics to study snow predictions

By Karen Graham     Feb 11, 2018 in Science
Snow is the one thing that sets the Winter Olympics apart from the summer games, and NASA, along with 19 other international agencies from 11 countries are in Pyeongchang to observe and get better at predicting snow.
The international group will be studying how well researchers can measure snow from the ground and space and provide better data for snowstorm predictions in a project called the International Collaborative Experiments for PyeongChang 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, or ICE-POP.
The project is being led by the Korea Meteorological Administration and began at the start of the Olympics on February 9 and will conclude at the end of the Paralympics on March 18.
The international team of scientists, working in collaboration have spread 70 instruments across the Pyeongchang region. Actually, readers might be surprised to know that this latest snow project builds on similar projects that took place at the Vancouver and Sochi games.

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NASA's observations and experimental, real-time snow forecasts will be made at 16 different points near Olympic event venues every six hours and then relayed to Olympic officials. The NASA-Unified Weather Research Forecast Model (NU-WRF) is one of five real-time research forecast models being used in ICE-POP, according to Joy Ng, NASA Goddard/NASA Marshall.
"We're trying to get as close as we can to the truth," Walt Petersen, a physical scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama in charge of the NASA instruments, told Newsweek.
"The instruments they're deploying include cameras so precise they can photograph an individual snowflake 400 times per second, as well as a radar system that can "slice and dice the snow clouds" to figure out how they're forming, Petersen said.
Olympic venues 2018.
Topography - SRTM3 (NASA)
Olympic venues 2018. Topography - SRTM3 (NASA)
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The Korean peninsula's geography is a big difference
"Meteorologists are predicting bitterly cold temperatures for these 23rd Winter Olympics--a stark contrast from the slushy and unseasonably warm games in Vancouver (2010) and Sochi (2014). In fact, the 2018 Olympics could be the coldest in the history of the games, as frigid westerlies tend to blow in from Siberia," NASA said in a statement.
With the Pyeongchang project, there are complicating factors not found in the previous studies - The Korean peninsula's geography. Pyeongchang is nestled in the Taebaek Mountains, a 22 million-year-old mountain range that runs 500 kilometers (300 miles) near the Pacific Coast of South and North Korea.
Add in the interaction of the ocean, the Sea of Japan and the mountain range, and you get dramatic changes in airflow that can spur big snow events. Then there is a system meteorologists call a "backdoor cold front." Cold air travels over the Sea of Japan, picking up moisture and energy and then hits the northeast side of South Korea.
Most of the Olympic venues are about 15 miles away from the 40 to 50-degree water of the Sea of Japan. But the prevailing winds often are blowing from the heart of the Asian continent instead. This means Pyeongchang’s average February high is 31 degrees and the average low is 13, according to the Korea Meteorological Administration.
More about Winter olympics, pyeongchang, ICEPOP, snow measurements, physics of snow