During college, Tom Painter’s two passions, mathematics and skiing, seemed to be opposing forces. He dropped out of Colorado State University twice to live in the mountains and ski nearly every day – but he always found his way back to Fort Collins, earning his bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1989.

After a few career twists and turns as professor and research scientist, Painter’s two passions came together in the field of snow science: first at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and then, more recently through founding his own company.

Painter is the founder and CEO of Airborne Snow Observatories Inc., where he combines his interests in data and snow to measure, model, and predict the amount of water in snowpack. These predictions help municipalities and utilities plan for efficient water use – an endeavor that grows more critical each year as the climate crisis changes the amount of water available globally.

Tom Painter in front of mountains
CSU alum, Tom Painter

Accurate snowmelt predictions have the potential for huge impact. Approximately 2 billion people around the world rely on annual runoff as a vital source of water; this water source has the potential to decrease by 67% in the next century. In the coming years, Painter plans to expand his business globally.

“In the past, before accurate predictions, water managers would have to make important decisions before knowing the amount of water that would come from snowmelt. Predictions could be up to 50% off, causing massive amounts of water loss,” said Painter. “Our technology changed everything for them because now they can know by late March how much water they would get from the snowpack.”

Trust the science

After becoming a NASA Medalist and Fellow of the American Geophysical Union, Painter started Airborne Snow Observatories in 2019 with three co-founders. That year, their models predicted that snowmelt would lead to flooding in California’s Kings River Basin. Their estimates were well above the state’s estimates at the time; however, the local water manager trusted the science and measurements Painter and his colleagues presented. The manager adjusted plans and released water from the reservoir ahead of the snow – melt-driven flood to create space for the oncoming water. And it worked. In total, 100,000 acre-feet of water were kept within the system that otherwise would have run off into the ocean due to lack of storage space. The surplus water collected equaled $100 million of value for the water system and its stakeholders.

This is just one of the myriad successes of Airborne Snow Observatories in water management during flood, drought, and even near-average years. Due to these successes, ASO is expanding around the Western U.S. and internationally. Painter is particularly excited to see the program growing in his home Colorado mountains.

Data collected from aerial observation of the Blue River Basin  measures the amount of water frozen in the snow above Dillon  Reservoir in April 2021. IMAGE: Airborne Snow Observatories Inc.
Data collected from aerial observation of the Blue River Basin measures the amount of water frozen in the snow above Dillon Reservoir in April 2021. IMAGE: Airborne Snow Observatories Inc.

CSU key to success

Painter, whose late father, Richard, taught at CSU for nearly 40 years, cred – its his success to his mathematics education at CSU.

“Everything that I do is somehow involving the education and growing up that I had at CSU and, in particular, in the math department in the College of Natural Sciences,” said Painter, who has worked with a number of people around the West in the fields of engineering and climatology who learned calculus from his father.

Painter is busy with his growing business, but when he slows down, he reflects on how he got here.

“When I get a chance to sit and think about it, I feel so lucky to have been able to take my two passions and my upbringing and assemble them into something that is of so much value to people.”

Painter is giving back to CSU through a scholarship fund originally set up by his mother, brother, and himself to memorialize and carry on the efforts of his father, the Richard J. Painter Fund for Undergraduate Mathematics Education Endowment.