Weird science: Low-down, dirty snow

Windy spring weather in Denver makes it difficult for robins to build their nests. (A couple is working on one outside my kitchen window and after several days they just have a clump of mud up high and a bunch of straw and string on the ground below them.)

It also creates whirling dust dervishes that often whirl their way up into the high country. This is a bad thing. There are few sights more depressing than dirty snowfields. Not only are they ugly, they melt way too fast for comfort.

From a article by Cheryl Dubas of the National Science Foundation:
"More than 80 percent of sunlight falling on fresh snow is reflected back to space," says Tom Painter, Director of the University of Utah's Snow Optics Laboratory. "But sprinkle some dark particles on the snow and that number drops dramatically."

Dubas goes on to describe the Colorado Dust-on-Snow Program (CODOS) based at the Center for Snow and Avalance Studies in Silverton. Launched in 2004, CODOS has tracked the amount of dust landing on the state's snowpack and its impact -- which is significant:

Twelve dust-on-snow events during the winter of 2008/2009 led to a 40 to 50 day earlier snowmelt--which occurred 20 days earlier than normal--with record streamflow rates.

CODOS's monitoring and forecasting services made all the difference, says [the National Science Foundation's Jay] Fein, enabling water managers to anticipate these events and still provide reliable water supplies.
I suppose we should also cut down on our dust in Denver, but I can't even remember to move my car for street sweeping, so just write me my dust ticket now.

(Photo from kteague)

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Eric Peterson