Twelve years ago, University of Utah researcher Tom Painter was climbing near Aspen, Colorado, with his father. Early in the climb, they scraped the surface off a square foot of snow, then continued to the summit. On the descent, they saw a little tower of clean snow—the same patch they’d cleared. The snow surrounding it had melted faster, and Painter’s dad kept asking him why. This was the day that inspired Painter’s future research.
It started out as a basic question: How is dust affecting the snowpack? Eventually it became a widespread investigation into dust’s role in snowmelt, hydrology, and regional climate change, along with how dust might screw with the ski season. In 2003, Painter began working on those questions with Chris Landry, an extreme-skiing pioneer and director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton, Colorado. Landry had previously looked at the relationship between dust and avalanches and found that dust can create weak layers in the snowpack. When Painter, Landry, and a few colleagues pulled together measurements from Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, they found that dust-covered snow melted between 18 and 50 days earlier than dirt-free snow cover. Clean, white snow reflects much of the sun’s energy; darker, dustier snow absorbs more heat and melts faster.
Painter says dust could threaten snow in the West more than warming. Last winter, a series of dust storms hit the Colorado Plateau and, Painter says, made the rest of the ski season in the central Rockies crusty and gnarly. Now he and his colleagues have turned their focus to the Wasatch snowpack, investing in an instrument-stocked tower at Alta, Utah. Next is a worldwide project to look at dust and snow in China, Nepal, and Kazakhstan.
But how to stop dust storms? According to Painter, the dust problem involves complicated land-use issues, from grazing to mining. He encourages interested skiers to become politically active about land use. Limiting development and overuse of desert lands will help reduce the amount of dust in the mountains. “Dramatic change is coming for us all,” Painter says. “Skiing won’t go away in our lifetimes, but it will be transformed.” —Cameron Walker