UGRWCD signs on to support study of regional snowpack

Dust layers scientifically linked to early melting 

A recent study into the melting patterns of dust-laden snowfields has gained support from the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD).


Researchers conducting the study say with the right data collection they could more accurately predict the melting and runoff patterns of the basin-wide snowpack. Chris Landry and his fellow researchers at the Center for Snow and Avalanche Study have spent the past three winters studying the snowpack in the Senator Beck Basin near Silverton, Colo. Landry spoke to the UGRWCD board of directors on October 22 and introduced his study, explaining the Center has been studying the effect of dust layers in snow. Landry calls it “snow albedo,” which is the reflectivity of snow. In a nutshell, dark materials absorb solar energy, while light materials reflect energy. The same concept applies to snow. When snow gets dirty, it melts much faster. Coincidentally, dirt and dust usually remain suspended at the topmost layer of snow, compounding the effect as more snow evaporates. “Snow is one of the most reflective surfaces on the globe. It’s known to be highly reflective when it’s clean,” Landry said. “Clean snow reflects 90 to 95 percent of the radiation that hits it. Dirty snow is a different story.” Landry’s study estimates that over the past three years the snowpack near Silverton has usually melted a month earlier, because of dust, than it would from heat and sunlight alone. Researchers have also been able to match layers of dust in the snowpack with specific dust storms blowing in from the Canyonlands area of Utah. All that’s really needed, Landry says, is the raw data to create the model and funding to support its collection. Once funded by the National Academy of Sciences, Landry is now seeking new funding to continue his research and develop computer models and infrastructure for new basins. UGRWCD board member Ralph Grover asked what the district could get in return for funding the study. Landry said the district would receive a regular bulletin of current trends at the study site, weather phenomena throughout Colorado and a forecast for the local basin. The funds would also be used to further refine the study and the computer models. “The payoff in investment is not going to be immediate,” Landry said. Grover said a computer model that could predict the effects of dust in the snowpack for the Gunnison area would be the most beneficial tool. Board member Ken Span agreed and said he would definitely support the project. Grover asked if they had studied the particulate matter of the dust and identified its origin. Landry said their research indicated that most of the dust was blowing in from the Colorado Plateau, rather than the Mojave desert or other deserts in Mexico. UGRWCD board member Steve Glazer asked if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used any of Landry’s models in their weather predictions. Landry said he had presented his work to NOAA officials, who were interested and will likely support the project. Glazer also noted that ski areas may find the information useful because those layers of dust are bad on skis. Landry said, “It’s a problem for ski area operations for sure,” but most ski areas don’t get that much dust. Colorado River Water Conservation District board president Bill Trampe was at the meeting and gave his support of the study, too. “The River District has been working with Chris for a couple years. We think it’s important and we’re up for another conversation about funding,” he said. During a budget work session later that evening the UGRWCD board unanimously agreed to make a contribution to Landry’s study, though a final sum will be determined during the board’s budget public hearing on November 20.

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