Is pink snow hurting the Vail Valley?
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – Pink snow.It looks pretty but it could have ugly consequences for the Vail Valley.Some skiers may have noticed an odd tint to the snow on Vail and Beaver Creek mountains last spring.”Remember last year when everybody looked out their window and the snow was pink?” said Melissa Macdonald, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council in Avon.There were at least 10 times last year when dust mixed with the snow, including two noticeable incidents when the snow took on a light pink tint, Macdonald said. In one case, the pink hue could be spotted on the mountain even after normal white snow fell later on.”When you skied a run, you turned and your tracks were pink,” Macdonald said.That pink color is what experts call “dust on snow” -a mysterious and in some ways irksome phenomenon that speeds up the snow’s melting process in the spring.The dust originates in the Colorado Plateau, which sprawls across southwestern Colorado and parts of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, said Chris Landry, executive director of the Center for Snow & Avalanche Studies in Silverton. Those wind storms carry the dust into the Colorado mountains, where it mixes with snow.”It’s most common in the spring,” Landry said.The problem?The dust absorbs sunlight, causing snow to melt sooner than it normally would, Macdonald said. Dust can cause the snow to melt up to 50 days earlier, one study of southern Colorado’s Red Mountain Pass showed last year, Landry said.Locally, fast snow melt can be bad news for the water supply.”Our snow is really our reservoir,” Macdonald said. “It holds the water for us until it melts. Ideally, it melts slowly over a long period of time.”If all the snow melts in a big rush, all the water just goes right down past us and we don’t have the use of it.”If the snow were to melt in a rush, it could affect the river levels, Macdonald said.”Vail’s economy is dependent on recreation,” she said. “We lure people here to float and fish, and to kayak, and if the snow melts and the water departs the valley, that cuts all those seasons short and that’s not good for our economy,”A good water supply is also important for the health of fish and the amount of drinking water available, Macdonald said.It’s unclear exactly how long dust on snow has been happening in Colorado, Landry said. However, evidence suggests the amount of dust has increased significantly since the settlement of the West, he said. Also mysterious, scientists are unsure what trends will emerge in the future with the amount of dust on snow, Landry said.The dust occurs when the soil in the plateau is disturbed, but scientists can only speculate as to what factors are generating the dust, he said.”Who’s to blame for all of this dust?” Landry said. “Is it oil and gas? Is it grazing? Motorized recreation? We really have no idea of the relative share of responsibility for disturbing that desert soil.”It’s also unclear what role climate change plays in all this. Droughts in the plateau don’t help the situation, Landry said.”Prolonged droughts will only slow the recovery of the soil surface itself and the plant communities that help pin down the dust,” he said.Looking ahead to the future, The Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies plans to keep monitoring dust on snow.As for what should be done about it …”It’s such a complex land management question that we don’t speculate about that,” Landry said.Staff Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2928 or email@example.com.