Ski miles in the wilderness to measure the dust on top of the snow

When I began studying snowmelt in Utah and Colorado in 2009, I became very interested in measuring the impact of warming temperatures on melt rates. But when I went to the research sites to collect snow samples, the mountains were covered in dust; In Colorado, it was red from the desert soil. Fourteen years later, it’s clear that 2009 was one of the biggest years of snow dust.

Last month, we published research (Just OI And Al. environment. Res. Lieut. 18, 064045; 2023) that demonstrated how dust falls from the Great Salt Lake bed exposed in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. Since 2009, I’ve been skiing every March through May to remote sites in Utah and Colorado, where I monitor how the powder layers develop. I usually ski several kilometers, carry a 27-kilogram pack with a shovel for digging snow holes, tools for cutting snow wedges and measuring their density, and containers for collecting snow samples for analysis. One year, I hit a dusty snow, broke my ski, and opened my leg.

In areas with heavy dust deposition, such as the southern Rocky Mountains, the dust accelerates melting by a month or two. Warming air temperatures affect snow accumulation, but dust builds up over time and darkens the surface, which absorbs more sunlight and melts faster.

We are now investigating different snow and ice landscapes – the Himalayas and the Andes – for example, to study how black-carbon formation following forest fires affects melting. In this picture from August 2019, I’m in Greenland, measuring the surface reflectivity of the ice. Behind me, the accumulated dark sediment flows in a current.

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As we move into an even dustier future, I try to make models of ice melt. We can predict snowmelt for many reasons, including how to use water as efficiently as possible in the western United States.

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