Snow Water Equivalent Cabinet – Data as Sculpture | Adrien Segal


Figure 1 (left) Segal, Adrien. Snow Water Equivalent Cabinet, 2011. Ebonized ash and carved plywood. Private Collection. Figure 3 (right) Segal, Adrien. A Comparative Data Visualization of Annual Snow Water Equivalent Graphs for Water Years 1980 – 2010. Digital drawing. 2015.

Observing, reflecting on, and responding to my surroundings, I am fascinated with the ways in which we study the environment. Modern conventions emphasize the method of scientific analysis to explain our experience of nature, leading to a sense of personal alienation and loss of intimacy with our natural environment. Starting with scientific data as a conceptual basis, my artwork seeks to reconcile scientific conventions of reason and fact with an intuitive sensory experience in the form of sculpture. Although my background is in furniture design, making functional pieces is not my focus – rather I use form, structure, and material as the visual language through which I communicate ideas. Snow Water Equivalent Cabinet is a data sculpture – a physical representation of annual snowpack measurements recorded at Ebbetts Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California (see fig. 1).

Each sculptural exploration begins with a highly personal experience in a natural place.

Growing up at the foot of the arid Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and spending winters in the Sierra Nevadas after moving west to California, the allure of snow and its quiet all encompassing beauty has always captured my attention. Snow is the perfect water storage system, a natural phenomenon in which a necessary life resource is saved in the winter and slowly released in the dry summer months, feeding streams and rivers as it heads towards the ocean. Now, much of that water never reaches it’s destination – dams and diversions reroute and artificially store water to be used for industry, agriculture, and the public supply.

My design method begins with extensive research, collection, and analysis of information.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (a division of the USGS and the National Water and Climate Center) installs, operates, and maintains an extensive automated system in the Western US and Alaska. In 1935, they established the SNOTEL program, which stands for SNOw TELemetry, to conduct snow surveys and develop accurate and reliable water supply forecasts, which they make available to private industry, government entities, and private citizens through an extensive online searchable database.[1] Quantitative data such as air temperature, precipitation, snow depth, soil moisture, salinity, and snow water equivalent, are available on the website and are searchable by the specific station, frequency, units, layout, and time period.

Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) is the amount of water contained within the snowpack. It can be thought of as the depth of water that would theoretically result if you melted the entire snowpack instantaneously.[2] The formula is a function of snow density and depth. Looking through the list of sites, I recognized Ebbetts Pass as a place I had once visited. The historic data available from this station dates back to 1980, a total of 31 years through 2010 (see fig. 3). Commonly used in hydrology, a water year begins October 1st and ends September 30th the following year, and is used to compare precipitation totals. Plotting time (x) to SWE (Y), the plot line gradually rises, peaks somewhere in the middle of the water year, and swiftly declines back to zero as the snowpack melts off and finally flat lines in the summer (see fig. 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2. Snow Water Equivalent for Ebbetts Pass (462) California SNOTEL Site, Water Year 2008. National Resources Conservation Service. Web. September 2015.

I interpret the complexity of natural systems by translating scientific data into forms that represent trends, patterns, processes, and relationships to reveal unseen changes that occur in the natural landscape over time.

Referencing annual SNOTEL graphs for each of the 31 water years (see fig. 2), I begin to sketch lines and shapes that loosely explore how to transform the 2D information into an engaging 3D form that reveals long term trends and relationships from year to year as the plot lines are layered, stacked, spaced, and lofted into one another (see fig. 4). Removing all labels, numbers, and qualitative markers, my design method is an exploration into ways to articulate the information purely through form and material. Using the numerical data as the conceptual basis, I interpret the data to get at the essence of the patterns that reveal themselves through the process of drawing, refining, translating, and fabricating the forms in physical materials

Figure 5. Segal, Adrien. Concept Sketch for Snow Water Equivalent Cabinet. Pen on paper. 2010.

The result of this extensive design process is a sculpted plywood cabinet – three dimensional graph of the amount of water in the snowpack at any given time during the water year, showing specifically the first snowfall, peak amount of water content, and the final snowmelt (see fig. 5). Using the same website to source data for the average annual precipitation, another variable is embedded in the sculpture which determines the height of each drawer. Years with less precipitation result in very shallow drawers while the shorter snow seasons yield narrow drawers – thus the size of each drawer directly correlates to the annual water patterns. In turn, this directly affects the implied functionality of the cabinet as a device for storage. Drawers representing very dry years with little snowfall are only a quarter of an inch deep. Alternatively, natural phenomena that affect precipitation are revealed as well. The deepest and widest drawer near the bottom of the cabinet has a sculpted plywood front that protrudes farther than all the others. This correlates with the 1982-83 El Niño storm in which a warming of the sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean caused strong storms on the California coast, resulting in higher tides, mudslides on the coast, spring flooding from snowmelt, and record snowfall across the state. In one 36-hour period 8.5 feet of snow fell in the Lake Tahoe region[3].

There is great power in data visualization as a tool to express a point of view, create a narrative, and help us reveal and understand the complex world around us in ways that the naked eye can’t see. By interpreting and translating data into physical forms, the pieces that I create are intended to engage both the body and the mind by articulating meaning through form and material. The tangible expression of ideas makes the information accessible in an unexpected communicative format.

Figure 6. Segal, Adrien. Snow Water Equivalent Cabinet (Detail Views). 2011. Private Collection.

As a visual artist, artistic license gives me the ability to appropriate the immense amount of information available as a conceptual and visual resource. My work capitalizes on the potential that lies within scientific inquiry when strict standards for fact and method are interpreted from a creative perspective. Conversely, allowing viewers to investigate the embedded information from their own perspective can evoke feelings of wonder and curiosity, while giving space for the emotional response that results from understanding the implications of the science beyond the analytic. The artifacts we make have the potential to raise awareness, bring about dialogue, change perceptions, and tell a story about the time and place we live – they can become vessels from which knowledge can be derived.


Adrien Segal is a sculptural data artist and designer based in Oakland, CA.  Her work has been exhibited internationally in galleries and museums, and is published in several books and academic journals, including Boom: A Journal of California and Data Flow 2. Adrien has been an Artist in Residence at Facebook, the Bunnell Art Center in Homer, Alaska and at Autodesk’s Pier 9 Workshop in San Francisco. She is the 2015 Wornick Distinguished Visiting Professor at California College of the Arts, where she received a BFA in Furniture Design. In addition to teaching, she pursues her creative practice out of her studio on a former Naval Base in Alameda, CA. Visit for more information on Adrien’s work and practice.


[1] SNOTEL and Snow Survey & Water Supply Forecasting Program. Brochure. National Water & Climage Center. United States Department of Agriculture. Rev. 1/20/2014. Web. September 2015.

[2] What is Snow Water Equivalent? National Resources Conservation Service, Oregon. United States Department of Agriculture. Web. September 2015.

[3] California’s Top 15 Weather Events of the 1900’s. Western Regional Climate Center. Desert Research Institute. Web. September 2015.

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