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  • Large snow events in most parts of New Zealand are uncommon. However, if you are in the South Island or the central North Island, this citizen science project could be a great one for your students to engage in during times when it is snowing.

    Find out why we need to know more about these weather events and how you could gather data to help scientists at NIWA. You also might like to partner up with a school where snow events do not occur to share the learning. Students could create models out of materials to get a sense of the depth of snow the other class is monitoring. Participating in this project integrates ideas about weather and technology. By measuring and recording the depth and density of snow, you can contribute to a larger dataset that is being used to construct New Zealand’s own Building Code relating to snow loading on buildings. The potential for integration with numeracy and technology through this OCS project is huge.

    Rights: NIWA


    The citizen science project How Deep Is Your Snow? is an initiative by Crown research institute the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).


    Reach: National

    Nature of science focus: Online citizen science (OCS) projects can be used to develop any of the Nature of Science (NoS) substrands. Identify aspects of NoS that your students need to further develop or understand more fully and then frame your unit to be very clear about these things when you do them.

    Science capability focus: Gather and interpret data

    Science focus: weather, climate change, properties of matter

    Some suggested science concepts:

    • Scientists make measurements when observing and collecting data.
    • New Zealand’s island topography makes its weather systems unique.
    • Water can exist as a liquid, solid or gas.
    • The density of snow affects its mass.
    • The design of a structure such as a building affects its ability to carry a load.

    Many concepts could be learned – focusing on a few can often be more powerful. Develop your learning outcomes and success criteria from these concepts as well as the Nature of Science strand and the science capabilities.

    Some examples of learning outcomes:

    Students can:

    • take accurate measurements of snow depth and calculate snow density
    • explain why multiple measurements make the data more valid
    • demonstrate the connection between snow density and load on an object
    • describe how New Zealand’s weather patterns are unique.
    Rights: Anon Mouse, CC BY 2.0

    Snow at Hagley Park

    Hagley Park in central Christchurch blanketed in snow.

    About How Deep Is Your Snow?

    Admittedly, this project is difficult to plan for since we can’t be sure of when it will snow, but knowing about and being prepared to use this OCS project will add some interesting and authentic teaching for your students.

    Did you know that our snow is unique? Being a small island country with a mountainous backbone, our snow has different density characteristics to snow of other countries. Yet our building standards rely on Australian and American data rather than our own in order to calculate snow loadings for roofs. This project, led by NIWA, with funding from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), seeks to gather a database of information about snow depths and density in order to establish guidelines based on New Zealand data.

    Rights: Malcolm Gayfer, Weatherwatch

    Collapsed Southland Stadium

    In September 2010, the roof of Invercargill’s Southland Stadium collapsed. This was partly due to the weight of up to 600 tonnes of snow from one of the worst storms to hit the area in decades.

    This OCS project lends itself well to integrating with maths (measurement, multiplicative thinking) and technology (designing and developing materials outcomes).

    Taking part in this project involves making two types of measurement should it snow at your school or local area. The first is a simple depth measurement that can be made by pushing a metre ruler straight down into the snow. The second is slightly more complex, but full instructions are given on how to calculate the density of snow.

    Rights: Nelson Boustead, NIWA

    Measuring snow

    NIWA’s Christian Zammit measures snow depth in Christchurch. The difference between wet and dry snow for a given depth can be as much as 500 kg per cubic metre.

    This project app was launched in 2019, so watch the NIWA website for further updates. The NIWA Citizen Science app is available on both the Apple App and Google Play stores and is free and easy to download. Use it for inputting data on snow depth measurements. Funding is being sought to extend this for density measurements also, so keep an eye out for updates to the app. The more data gathered, the more there is to share and compare with other places in New Zealand and with the existing data we use from overseas. The Christchurch-based NIWA research team are very happy to be contacted about this project.

    Nature of science

    This OCS project allows the gathering of data to be extended beyond visual observation and requires measurements that follow a scientific process. This presents an opportunity for discussions with students about measuring errors and the value of repetition in order to gain more valid data.

    Related content

    The animated video, Snow to ice shows how snow is transformed into firn.

    Here are some planning tips for when you intend to use a citizen science project with your students.

    These Connected series articles link well to ideas about structures and building:

    The Connected journal Watching the Weather covers weather, weather extremes and ideas about climate change.

    Activity idea

    Snowstorms are just one of many different types of natural disasters that New Zealanders may face. Use the activity Home disaster kit to prepare for an emergency.

    Useful links

    Relating to weather

    Read this article from NIWA about the collapse of the Southland Stadium in 2010. (Note that the findings put the collapse down to more than just overloading of snow.)

    Use these School Journal articles to explore more about our weather.

    From the Ministry of Education’s Building Science Concepts collection:

    Relating to structure

    This technology/engineering-based lesson explores the strength of roofs.


    This outline was written as part of Victoria University of Wellington’s Citizen Scientists in the Classroom project funded by the Ministry of Education’s Teaching & Learning Research Initiative.

      Published 17 July 2019 Referencing Hub articles
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