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Good Article on Dust & Snow, Causes & Problems

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The Denver Post has an article up from Scott Willoughby that very well could be one of the best I’ve read from a corporate media source on the shifting environment and its numerous impacts. I wish more reports would be presented like this. Alas, there is little controversy and no infotainment involved.

The issue: increasing amounts of dust on the snow in the mountains and what it means. Scientific studies have been conducted (since 2003) on the presence of dust and the impacts on snowmelt. In short, snow with dust on it melts quicker than snow without dust on it. It has to do with albedo and energy absorption. In the interests of those of us who drink and use water in the summer (all of us) as well as those who use snow in the winter (recreationists), snow that melts sooner is generally viewed as a bad thing:

In 2005 and 2006, dust-covered snow melted up to 35 days earlier than a purely clean snowpack would have in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Last year — which included 12 measurable winter/spring dust storms — snow melted 48 days earlier in the same area.

Wow – one to one and a half months less snow cover. With skier numbers totaling millions every year, one month less of snow availability puts a huge dent in the season. That’s the primary reason why increasing numbers of mountain resorts are working very hard with climate activists to finally put a price on carbon – their bottom lines are being adversely affected by a number of climate change effects.

Which brings up a very good point that Willoughby’s article mentions (emphasis mine):

It’s not a global warming issue, per se, although warming is likely to exacerbate the problem. The immediate problem comes from the dark tint of dust-covered snow, which negates its natural reflective qualities and absorbs more sunlight. Compare it to wearing a black shirt on a sunny day. By putting a dark shirt on the snowpack, scientists say it’s melting more than a month faster.

There’s no hemming or hawing or he said/she said b.s. included in that. It’s scientifically accurate. I’m sure the denialists would love to hack away at it, but for whatever reason, that doesn’t show up in this article.

Okay, the next, and probably more important issue, is the runoff of the snow. The West is watered by the Rocky Mountain snow pack. Millions and millions of people depend on it. Knowing when and how it will melt is among the chief concerns of water managers in the West. Extensive and confusing laws govern every drop of water in the region. Reservoir levels need to be maintained; everybody wants their pre-agreed upon portion of each year’s flow.

With the entire snow pack melting earlier in recent years than they used to, the water has to be managed in different ways. Disagreements and conflicts arise. And that’s all in today’s environmental climate. The real concern, as the above quote alludes to, is what might happen in the future if say there is a multi-decadal drought, something that has occurred across the West many times in the past few thousand years in a state of the climate we’re generally well-adapted to.

The article responsibly mentions that this situation has only been studied since 2003 – making the dataset and any conclusions drawn from it inadequate for the challenges we face. Still, it’s better than not studying it at all. And with greater focus on the issue, future changes can be anticipated and compared to what actually transpires. Minimizing our impacts on the dust’s source regions – nearby deserts – would do wonders to help mitigate any future issues. As our understanding of this problem grows, so too will our responsibilities.

Cross-posted at SquareState.

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One thought on “Good Article on Dust & Snow, Causes & Problems

  1. New studies from Landry show other impacts from dust on snow, including changes in alpine/tundra vegetation: http://summitcountyvoice.com/2010/05/31/desert-dust-disrupting-alpine-plant-cycles/

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