Monday, December 12, 2011

While stalking the family tree, I ponder dust storms in the high mountains

Family with trophy tree, Snowy Range, Wyoming

Warm December days, still nights and lunar eclipses probably presage a cold, windy snowy Christmas. But for now, I'm enjoying the weather.

I as thinking of the weather yesterday when hiking up a snow-packed trail near Corner Mountain in the Snowy Range. Our family was in search of our Christmas tree. We don't need snowshoes because we stay on the cross-country ski trail which has been packed down by cross-country skiers and no new snow has been added the past five days.

There's good snowpack this year, thus far, despite the recent warm spell. But if it's to equal last year's record, it will have to start snowing again and keep it coming through May. Last spring and early summer flood warnings were in effect all over Wyoming. This was the second year for that after a decade of drought. That's how it goes in the West.

The snow-melt cycle may be changing, according to an article in the New York Times. Dust that originates in the Four Corners region may be increasing and that may affect what happens in the Rockies each spring. There is an entity invesitating this and you can check out some of their finding at a web site. The Colorado Dust-on-Snow (CODOS) project is part of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies based in Silverton, Colo. There may not be a better place for snow and avalanche research than Silverton.

The NYT article was fascinating. Here's an excerpt:
In the last few years, winter dust storms on the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado have sharply increased in number, affecting the rate of melting snows into the Colorado River, a main source of water for agriculture and for the drinking supply for more than 20 million people. Of 65 so-called dust-on-snow events since 2003, when tracking began, 32 have struck in just the last three years, according to the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, a nonprofit research group based in Silverton, Colo. Dust can accelerate how fast snow melts because it absorbs heat.
“It’s not a mysterious process,” said Chris Landry, the organization’s executive director. “Anybody who has thrown coal dust on their driveway or sidewalk to melt it down knows the theory.”
Much of the dust carries a distinct chemical signature, too, heavy in iron oxides. The same rust-colored mineral that makes red-rock canyon country of Utah and Arizona can also absorb solar energy, again potentially accelerating the rate and timing of snow melt in crucial watersheds.
Looking at the CODOS study map, I notice that two of the research areas are in northern Colorado at the headwaters of the North Platte. I'm going to look into those stats to see how it affects the river that flows through half of Wyoming.

So, at the same time we're getting more snow, it's melting faster. The land dries out and we get more dust storms in Utah, Arizona and California. Visibility suffers. Asthma cases increase. Read Kirk Johnson's Dec. 10 NYT article about changing air quality in the West. 

All of this, of course, is tied in with global climate change.

As I hike the winter Rockies, I think about that all that. We're on a family outing. We have a U.S. Forest Service permit in hand that allows us to thin the tree herd. There will be a line of cars and trucks all day shuttling in and out of the Snowies with trophy trees on their roof racks. The USDA says that this tree-trimming helps to maintain a healthy forest. There are environmentalists who say it is a waste of time and energy. That may also be true. Our forests are in trouble, which is definitely true. On Sunday, we walked among beetle-killed trees. This area is not so bad compared to other parts of the Snowies, especially the west slope where campground have been closed for the culling of beetle-killed trees. 

We bagged out tree and had a great time. Dust, meanwhile, was all around us but hard to see. Hard to see, but taking its toll.  

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