Snow covers about 40 million km2 of the land area of the Northern Hemisphere during the winter season. The accumulation and depletion of snow is dynamically coupled with global hydrological and climatological processes. Snow covered area and snow water equivalent are two essential measurements. Snow cover maps are produced routinely by the National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA/NESDIS) and by the US Air Force Global Weather Center (USAFGWC). The snow covered area reported by these two groups sometimes differs by several million km2, Preliminary analysis is performed to evaluate the accuracy of these products.
Microwave radiation penetrating through clouds and snowpacks could provide depth and water equivalent information about snow fields. Based on theoretical calculations, snow covered area and snow water equivalent retrieval algorithms have been developed. Snow cover maps for the Northern Hemisphere have been derived from Nimbus-7 SMMR data for a period of six years (1978–1984). Intercomparisons of SMMR, NOAA/NESDIS and USAFGWC snow maps have been conducted to evaluate and assess the accuracy of SMMR derived snow maps. The total snow covered area derived from SMMR is usually about 10% less than the other two products. This is because passive microwave sensors cannot detect shallow, dry snow which is less than 5 cm in depth. The major geographic regions in which the differences among these three products are the greatest are in central Asia and western China. Future study is required to determine the absolute accuracy of each product.
Preliminary snow water equivalent maps have also been produced. Comparisons are made between retrieved snow water equivalent over large area and available snow depth measurements. The results of the comparisons are good for uniform snow covered areas, such as the Canadian high plains and the Russian steppes. Heavily forested and mountainous areas tend to mask out the microwave snow signatures and thus comparisons with measured water equivalent are poorer in those areas.