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Dust on Crust

Dust layers in the snowpack could cause avalanches, scientists say.
posted: 10/13/2010
Dust layer in the snowpack at the CSAS study plot
by Heather Hansman

Last winter, dust from the deserts of the Southwest blew across the Rockies turning the snow an unappealing shade of pink and causing it to melt much faster. But dust could be causing even more problems for skiers. Now, snow scientists think that dust layers may be responsible for avalanches as well.

Chris Landry, executive director of the Center of Snow and Avalanche Studies, gave a presentation at the Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop last week. Landry, who had been studying the impacts of dust on snow since 2003, said that dust in the snowpack is creating the kind of unstable snow conditions that can trigger avalanches.

When dust lands on top of snow it changes the snow’s albedo, or how much light it reflects back. Dark, dusty snow absorbs more light, which makes it melt faster. That melting can create a variety of snow conditions that are risk factors for slides, like faceted, unstable snow layer, or an icy frozen bed surface.

The number of dust events across the West had been increasing; Landry said that last winter was the first time ski areas were really impacted by dust. That means the occurrence of dust-spurred avalanches could rise.

Read about Landry’s presentation.

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