Measuring Snow in a New England Winter

For 14 years, staff at Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary in Princeton have tracked the overall snowfall of the year by measuring each average snowfall on a piece of wood. This is an example of phenology, or the study of seasonal events. 

Measuring Stick 

Snow sticks at Wachusett Meadow

Every fall before the first snow, a piece of lumber measuring approximately 1”x3”x 7’ becomes the year’s new snow stick. For the next couple of months, staff will select an easily accessible area that is open, flat, and away from anything that might block snow or enhance drifting—like a parking area, walkway, or even the top of a picnic table—to measure the snow.  

The best time to calculate the snowfall is within 24 hours after it has stopped snowing. Depending on the amount, staff vertically position a standard 12-inch ruler or a yardstick into the snow until it touches the ground and is level. Once the amount is recorded, staff will take two additional measurements in the same or a similar area for precision. The average of these three measurements is then marked on the snow stick with a line, amount, and date. 

End of the Line 

As winter continues, the dates, depths, and indicator lines are written on the snow stick above the previous indicator line. The most snow—over 100 inches—was recorded in 2014-2015; the lowest recorded was 35.5 inches the following winter. Overall, however, the annual snowfall has been trending downward. 

Importance of Phenology 

Phenology helps us track seasonal patterns in nature, for example, when the leaves fall, when Piping Plovers fly north for breeding, or when bears emerge from their dens. Changes in climate and temperature can alter the timing of our natural calendar, which could include the shift of overall snowfall. Although the data from Wachusett Meadow is too small a sample size to make any major conclusions about changing winters in New England, Mass Audubon does participate in tracking the changes of seasons through programs like Harvard Forest’s Buds, Leaves, and Global Warming project, which tracks the growing season of trees in Massachusetts.  

Start planning your trip to Wachusett Meadow and see several of the snow sticks from previous seasons by visiting