Central Sierra Snow Lab

Located at Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada, the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory is a research field station of UC Berkeley specializing in snow physics, snow hydrology, meteorology, climatology, and instrument design. Built in 1946 by the (then) U.S. Weather Bureau and Army Corps of Engineers, it is administered by UC Berkeley's California Biodiversity Center.  

Research Programs

Current research includes modeling black carbon's role as an albedo-changing precipitate and snow surface impurity; studying the isotopic evolution of the snowpack; measuring the attenuation of cosmic gamma radiation to assess snowpack snow water equivalent; the operational utility of weather forecasts; using LiDAR to measure snowpack spatial and temporal distribution; trends in Sierra Nevada climatology and snowpack during the past six decades; modeling ground and surface water response to snow accumulation and ablation; modeling air temperature lapse rate; fluidless (2 designs) precipitation gauge development; snow surveys; avalanche safety and forecasting.


The Facility

Staffed year-round. Main lab building with office space, electronics workroom, wet chemistry lab, kitchen, bath, 3 bedrooms. Wireless DSL throughout the main building. Support buildings including parking garages, a Sno-Cat garage with wood- and metal-working shops, paint shed, propane back-up generator. Snow-study site (50 m diameter natural clearing) adjacent to Lab building has wide array of hydrometeorological instruments, from which data are logged, telemetered, and streamed on-line. The site has 3 instrument towers from 7 to 11 m tall. A small instrument tower is located 100 m north of Lab in a forested site. The Central Sierra Snow Laboratory (CSSL) is part of the California Air Resources Board acid deposition network, as well as being a USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) snow telemetry (SNOTEL) site. CSSL is a reporting station for the California Department of Water Resources stream and river flow forecast program. The Snow Lab is also a reporting station for the National Weather Service. The Lab is located 300 m from pavement on a dirt road (not plowed in winter) which adds privacy and security.

The Environment

Conifer dominated (Lodgepole Pine, Red Fir, Whitebark Pine); 2100 m elevation, 2 km west of the Sierra Nevada crest. Persistent maritime climate with an average annual precipitation of 1.3 m; average annual snowfall is 10.4 m; average maximum snow depth is 3.4 m. Average yearly max and min air temps of 26 and -10° C. Located at the headwaters of the South Fork Yuba River. Castle Creek (draining the 1214 hectare Castle Valley watershed) runs 50 m behind CSSL. Castle Creek has rainbow and brown trout populations. Many species of mammal and bird inhabit the forest surrounding the Lab.

The Data

CSSL has a fairly complete and consistent record of precipitation, snowfall, snow depth, and air temperature for the periods of 1946-1952 and 1957-present. The Lab also has long-term data sets on wind speed and direction, solar radiation, snow temperature, relative humidity, and soil moisture. Much other data from a wide variety of studies over the past 64 years is also archived. In addition, precipitation and air temperature records from other sites on Donner Summit (dating back to the turn of the century) are available. Check out the Snow Lab's real-time weather data.

The Area

Donner Summit has several hundred full-time residents and supports 7 developed ski areas. In Soda Springs (1 km west of CSSL) there is a food market, gas station, and post office. Donner Summit has five hotels and a couple bed-and-breakfasts. CSSL is approximately 3 hours from the San Francisco Bay area, 90 minutes from Sacramento, 45 minutes from Reno, Nevada, 30 minutes from Lake Tahoe, and 15 minutes from Truckee. CSSL = 39.32547 N, 120.36737 W. The Chickering Reserve, a University of California Natural Reserve, is approximately 16 km from CSSL.




Central Sierra Snow Laboratory Research Cooperators

  • Alpine Meadows Ski Area
  • Auburn Ski Club
  • CA Air Resources Board
  • CA Department of Water Resources
  • California Highway Patrol
  • CalTrans
  • Dartmouth College
  • Desert Research Institute
  • Donner Summit PUD
  • Golden West Meteorology
  • Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
  • National Weather Service (RENO)
  • National Weather Service (SAC)
  • Nevada County
  • Pacific Gas and Electric
  • Placer County
  • Sandia National Laboratories
  • Scripps Institution of Oceanography
  • Sierra Avalanche Center
  • Sierra College
  • Sierra Lakes Water District
  • Sierra Nevada College
  • Snowbridge Associates
  • Squaw Valley Ski Area
  • Sugar Bowl Ski Area
  • Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team, Inc.
  • Tahoe Research Group
  • Town of Truckee
  • UC Berkeley
  • UC Davis
  • UC Santa Barbara
  • Union Pacific Transportation Company
  • University of Nevada
  • University of Washington
  • US Bureau of Reclamation
  • US Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station
  • US Forest Service, Tahoe National Forest
  • US Geological Survey
  • USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service 
Robert Rhew
(510) 642-3903
Staff contact
Andrew Schwartz
(530) 426-0318
Mailing address

(Mailing) P.O. Box 810, Soda Springs, CA 95728,