University of Utah study suggests dust threatens ‘Greatest Snow on Earth’

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SALT LAKE CITY — Research conducted by the University of Utah indicates dust may be threatening the “Greatest Snow on Earth.”

In a study published in Environmental Research Letters Friday, researchers write that the presence of dust accelerates the rate at which snow melts.

Geography professor McKenzie Skiles is the lead author of the study, which focused on a plot of land in Alpine, Utah.

“Like wearing a black shirt on a hot day, anything that darkens the snow surface—such as dust—will absorb more sunlight and accelerate melting,” a press release regarding the study said.

For the plot in Alpine, researchers determined about 50 percent of the total dust it received came from a single dust storm on April 13, 2017. The additional sunlight absorbed as a result of the dust caused the snow to melt a week earlier.

Since most of our water in the Salt Lake Valley comes from mountain snowpack, there are serious consequences associated with accelerated snowmelt.

“We don't account for dust in our runoff models, so the water comes out sooner than we expect it to, which means we can’t utilize it efficiently," said Skiles.

It also shifts something called Evapotranspiration rates.

“How much water is taken up by plants and evaporated up into the air is shifted when we get snowmelt earlier and faster,” said Skiles.

The team used computer modeling to determine the origin of the dust and said winds brought some of the dust from “hot spots” in Great Salt Lake’s dry lake bed.

The study called such hot spots a relatively new source of dust due to historically low lake levels.

The consequences are also economic in nature.

“We're famous for having the greatest snow on earth, and nobody wants to ski on dirty snow,” said Skiles.

The snow won’t be as white and if it melts earlier, resorts won’t be able to stay open as long.

“For Snowbird they can stay open as long as they want, but if the snow is melting early that's going to impact the tourism,” said Skiles.

“What’s important about the Great Salt Lake is that there are no water rights, no policy to maintain lake levels,” Sikes wrote in the press release. “As the lake declines, dust events are projected to become more frequent. Anything that impacts snowmelt could have economic and hydrologic consequences. And now one of the dust source regions is right next door. Could we do something about it by enacting policy that maintains a minimum lake level?”

Skiles said that while dust is naturally occurring, man-made factors play a role in its distribution.

“In most people’s minds, dust is a natural aerosol,” Skiles said. “But the magnitude and frequency of airborne dust is impacted by human activity, altering landscapes makes dust more likely to get picked up by wind, “We know that since settlement of the West, the amount of dust in the air has increased. And at the same time, due to upstream water withdrawals, lake levels are also declining, exposing even more dust.”

Click here for more on the research and findings from University of Utah. 

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