Dust Storms, Snowpack and the American West

June 10, 2013

June 10, 2013                      Jason Neff

According to a new study from CU-Boulder, there's a lot more dust being blown across the landscape now than a few decades ago. Increasing dust storms can have a number of negative impacts. When dust blows on an existing snowpack, for example, the dark particles better absorb the sun's energy and cause the snowpack to melt more quickly, says CU-Boulder's Jason Neff, associate professor of geology and coauthor of the study.

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Dust Storms, Snowpack and the American West

June 10, 2013                      Jason Neff

According to a new study from CU-Boulder, there's a lot more dust being blown across the landscape now than a few decades ago. Increasing dust storms can have a number of negative impacts. When dust blows on an existing snowpack, for example, the dark particles better absorb the sun's energy and cause the snowpack to melt more quickly, says CU-Boulder's Jason Neff, associate professor of geology and coauthor of the study.

CUT 1 “On average, the dust is accelerating snowpack by somewhere between two weeks and a month. So it’s a really substantial change. (:09) It exposes the ground more, it reduces the amount of water that actually makes it to the Colorado River drainage. It changes the timing of the snowmelt, so you get a bigger pulse off the mountains early in the season, which then means you have to mange the water differently.” (:24)

The amount of dust — which may be due to the interplay of several factors, including increased dust storm activity in the desert southwest, drought cycles and changing land use patterns – has increased over the last 17 years, says Neff

CUT 2 “What we know is that there are a lot of dust storms, and if you ask people in Colorado, especially on the Western Slope, if you ask people in Utah or Arizona, what you’ll often here is them say is, ‘Yeah, I did grow up in this area. I don’t remember it ever being like this before.’ And now, all of a sudden, there are all these dust storms.” (:19)

Hearing that there were more dust storms is one thing, says Neff, but knowing how much of an increase of dust in the air was another matter. That’s because dust has not been routinely measured over long periods of time. They needed another way to measure for dust. So they looked at decades of records from the National Atmospheric Deposition Program - a program that analyzes rainfall to better understand acid rain.

CUT 3 “When we don’t have a direct measurement of the dust then we look for what we call proxy measurements — something that comes from the dust but is not the actual dust itself. (:09) What we found is calcium in rainfall. What you find out is that most of that calcium around here is coming from soils. (17) And so, if we see that calcium in the rainfall then we can pretty reasonably or safely assume that that calcium is coming from soil that’s been blown into the air and become dust.“ (:29)

And Neff says the escalation in dust emissions has implications both for the areas where the dust is first picked up by the winds and for the places where the dust is put back down.

CUT 4 “What happens when you make dust is basically you’re losing surface soils — you’re losing topsoil. And that topsoil is what contains a lot of the nutrients that support plant growth. It’s more of a problem in the deserts where the erosion occurs. (:12) There’s a flip side, which is that all those nutrients then travel up into the mountains, and they functionally fertilize the soils. (:19) It’s one of the reasons we have beautiful alpine flowers now today in Colorado.” (:26)

Neff says the majority of the large dust storm events happen in the spring – March, April and May are the times when the state get’s huge deposits of dust.

 

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