Posted for Nancy Yearout
RE/MAX Properties of the Summit, Breckenridge, Colorado
The recent online series, Trip, features Swiss free-skiers Nicolas and Loris
Falquet skiing through snow colored with yellow, blue and umber dyes, all
apparently non-polluting. It's beautiful, slow-motion cinematography that
captures the complexity of snow, with vivid contrasts between storm layers,
cornices, powder and slabs.
It's also a timely metaphor, because the
color of snow is actually changing across the globe, including in the West. The
phenomenon is attributed to various human activities and carries big
implications for everything snow-related, including skiing, farming, forest
health and municipal water supplies.
The latest example comes from
southwest Idaho, where March winds transported a layer of desert dust onto the
snowpack at an Owyhee Mountains research station. Snow surveyors over 60 miles
away also observed the dusty snow. Dust absorbs heat and can be ruinous for
snowpacks. During the following 10 days, research cameras showed accelerated
melting that contributed to an early runoff in local rivers — a big deal for
farmers, rafters, fly-fishers, fish and wildlife. Scientists blamed the event on
exceptionally dry conditions in the Great Basin desert.
told the Idaho Statesman they'd never seen anything like it. But in Colorado, I
remember the umber-colored snowstorm the day after Valentine's Day, 2006, during
one of my last winters in the high country. Weather observers reported dusty
snow from Durango to northern Colorado, across over 100 miles of
The dust stained every mountain face and plagued the snowpack
for the rest of the winter. It happened again in 2009, leading some snowpacks to
melt 48 days early, according to University of Utah researchers. Scientists tied
these events to drought conditions as well: an abnormally dry desert
Dust kills snow dead. It reduces the reflectivity that keeps
snowpacks cool. Its dark particles also absorb heat, further warming snow. And
the accelerated melting uncovers vegetation and soil, revealing dark surfaces
that absorb additional heat and melt more snow. With snow producing up to 75
percent of water for many Westerners, and climate change already diminishing
Western snowpacks, the events are causing alarm.
Research adds to
concerns. Satellite imagery and analysis of dust confirms its origins in U.S.
deserts. In Colorado, researchers using pond sediments created a 5,000-year
dust-deposition record that showed dramatic increases in the late 1800s,
synchronous with the arrival of hordes of settlers with herds of cattle, which
Current dust deposition remains 500 times
pre-settlement levels, and contributors to the problem include grazing,
development, off-highway vehicles, and drilling.
The impacts are felt
high in the mountains and follow rivers downward, from ski areas to reservoirs,
farms and cities — all the way to thirsty Los Angeles. One researcher estimates
dust on snow reduces the Colorado River's flow by 5 percent, stealing enough
water to supply Los Angeles for 18 months.
Pollution is also changing the
color and impact of snow. Department of Energy research shows soot from
coal-fired energy plants and diesel engines causes widespread snowmelt in the
Cascades and Rockies. This reflects a growing global threat to snow and ice.
Industrial soot travels far and increasingly is blamed for the rapid melting of
Arctic sea ice and Alaska's incredible shrinking glaciers. Asian coal-fired
energy plants enhance melting in the Himalayas. Meanwhile, millions of
wood-burning stoves in Africa launch additional soot into the atmosphere, to be
later carried Earthward by faraway snows. In Greenland, researchers tied melting
to soot from fires in the Alaskan Arctic.
Here in the American West,
scientific models show a hotter, drier region with less vegetation and more
dust. In both Idaho and Colorado, abnormally dry desert conditions contribute to
dust-on-snow events. Increasing forest fires, including last summer's blazes
downwind of the Owyhees, can also remove vegetation and destabilize soils. In
the Arctic, increasing fires produce soot destined for sea ice and globally
significant ice caps.
The implications are wide-ranging. For instance, if
off-roading and drilling are sending dust aloft from increasingly arid deserts,
it lends ecological credence to long-standing proposals to designate some of
Utah's BLM lands as wilderness, places where the dust itself can remain
undisturbed. And if soot from Asian coal plants is dirtying snow and melting
glaciers, including on our own continent, it undermines the economic argument
for building enormous coal export facilities in Washington. This new world we're
in also makes the December 2012 decision to strengthen Clean Air Act soot
standards — lambasted by Republicans as “job-killing” — look like a good idea.
The same goes for the multi-national initiative to reduce soot that was
announced last year by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In these and
other examples, seemingly distant policy decisions have a bearing on snow and
the people who rely on it, including here in the West.
is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News
(hcn.org). He writes from south-central Alaska.
Courtesy of the Summit Daily News