Snowpack news: Dust covers accelerates runoff

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From The Denver Post (Scott Willoughby):

As the Aspen/Snowmass director of community and environmental responsibility, Schendler’s concerns for the disconcerting dust and dirt layers that have blanketed the slopes of his local ski areas along with mountains throughout the state this spring are considerably more comprehensive. And like so many observers of the reddish-brown dust layers that seem to be playing a more prominent — if not permanent — role in Colorado’s precious spring snowpack, he has more questions than answers. “There’s no question that it’s happening. But there’s always been dust out there, so has this always happened? Is it getting worse? All we know for sure is that it’s really bad,” Schendler said. “Our CEO has come into my office after these storms very agitated and said, ‘Auden, climate change may put us out of business eventually, but this is right now and this is a serious problem.’ Essentially your product is damaged.”

Along with its spectacular mountain scenery, Colorado’s most prized commodity arguably is its snow. Skiers and snowboarders are drawn by the millions annually to sample the celebrated snows of the Colorado Rockies, followed in spring and summer months by whitewater rafters, kayakers and fishermen savoring the snowmelt-fed rivers and streams. That’s not to mention the millions who depend upon the fresh water supply simply for survival…

Thanks to scientific studies conducted by former Coloradan Tom Painter at the Snow Optics Laboratory at the University of Utah, this much is known: 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…

[Jeff Deems, a research scientist at the NOAA Western Water Assessment and the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder said,] “…the biggest impact is hydrologic. We’re seeing earlier and faster runoff, which makes it harder to manage resources. In the West, we depend on the snowpack as a reservoir. We can store a lot more water in the snowpack than in our surface reservoirs. If you melt everything off a month early and melt it off faster, that’s a big challenge for water managers.”[…]

As for the origin of the dust episodes impacting the Colorado snowpack, the scientists have that one figured out. Collaborating with Chris Landry at the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton, Painter and Deems examine the effects of the dust events on the snowpack. Using satellite observations and weather modeling tools, they have traced the origin of the dust to the Colorado Plateau in the Four Corners region, where impacts of years of disturbance of the fragile desert topsoil have created large quantities of dust just waiting for a strong wind to carry it away. “Basically any activity that disturbs the soil crust and vegetation in the desert causes dust,” Deems said. “When we go out and disturb it — whether by drilling, plowing, driving, cow’s hooves, mountain bikes or feet — then all of the sudden the dust is ready to be blown away by the next wind storm.”[…]

For Schendler and those who depend on snow, the ultimate question remains: What can be done to stop it? “Recognizing the driving mechanism, that topsoil disturbance, is the key. Looking for solutions that minimize and reduce the disturbance to desert dust-emitting regions, that’s the overarching goal,” Deems said. “As recreationists enjoying the desert, it’s a matter of awareness, paying attention to public land use issues, as well as being careful about where we camp and how we travel, minimizing our impact on the land. Just some common sense.”

2 thoughts on “Snowpack news: Dust covers accelerates runoff

  1. My way of life and work are directly related to the ski industry and snowpack. I have lived in Colorado and played in the mountains and deserts of the rockies and southwest for over 30 years. This past April’s dust event is the worst that I can remember. A couple of weeks ago I visited the Captiol Reef, Grand Staircase and Escalante area. As always I was careful to not disturb the fragile desert crust and microbiotic soils. As the BLM and National Parks constantly implore us to do. Yet I could not help but notice the thousands of acres in and out side the park that are churned and disrupted by subsidized cattle. The current excuse for this is historic value. This is a poor excuse for a fragile ecosystem. Raising cattle in the desert for the past 100 – 125 years is a very short view of history and it’s value would be worhtless if it were not for goverment subsidies. It’s time to make some difficult dicision for the good of all.

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