Breckenridge CMC speaker to discuss how dust patterns affect snowpack |

Breckenridge CMC speaker to discuss how dust patterns affect snowpack

Special to the Daily

If you go

What: “Dust on snow and airborne snow mapping: Emerging snow science challenges and enabling sustainable water management in the Upper Colorado River Basin,” a Colorado Mountain College Sustainability Studies Department and Speaker Series event

When: 7-9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20

Where: Eileen and Paul Finkel Auditorium, Colorado Mountain College, 107 Denison Placer Road, Breckenridge

Cost: Free and open to the public

More information: Visit

Often during springtime in Summit County, a haze of reddish dust drifts in from the west and settles over the snow on the peaks of the Ten Mile Range. Beyond creating slushy snow conditions for spring skiing, the dust can have a drastic impact on snowpack retention and water management for the Colorado River Basin.

Jeff Deems, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center and the University of Colorado, is part of a team studying the effects of dust on snow by using data from the NASA Airborne Snow Observatory. Deems will visit Breckenridge on Thursday, Nov. 20, to talk about the dust phenomenon.


The thesis of the presentation at Colorado Mountain College is divided into two subtopics, which at first might seem unrelated, Deems said.

“The first part of the talk will be about the impacts of dust on snowmelt,” he said. “It comes blowing out of the Four Corners and lands on the snowpack. The darker the dust on the snow, it absorbs more energy and melts off faster. You’ve seen that up in Summit quite a bit the past few years, so I’ll be looking at the hydrology impacts from that.”

The second part of the talk dives into another project Deems is involved with, using instrumentation from NASA to measure snow albedo across mountain bases. Albedo is a non-dimensional, unit-less quantity that indicates how well a surface reflects solar energy, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

“It’s really providing us a new way to talk comprehensively about snowpack in mountain regions,” Deems said. “What that’s going to allow us to do, in areas and times when we have dust on snowpack, it’s melting off faster than operational forecasts would suggest. What’s needed to cope with that is to look and see how much is there, what color it is and, more accurately, how fast it will run off into rivers.”

The NASA observatory contains two specialized instruments, a spectrometer, which measures albedo, and a lidar system, which uses a scanning laser to map the surface elevation and report snow depth.

“The airborne mapping is part of a larger vision of enabling resilient and sustainable water management,” Deems said.


The dust that makes its way to Summit County can cause the snowpack to melt off several weeks to several months earlier than it would have otherwise, which has a major impact on water availability later in the summer, Deems said.

“The dust phenomenon is complicating water management because we depend on the snowpack as our primary reservoir,” he said. “You’re there right by Lake Dillon, so you see surface water storage there, but if you look broadly at the Western Slope, there’s not much surface water storage. We rely on the snowpack later into the summer and dry season. If we melt it off a month or two months early, it has ramifications down the line.”

Early runoff affects not only water supplies for cities and towns that draw their resources from the Colorado River, but also fisheries and aquatic life farther down the river.

“We need to be able to forecast it, and that’s where the second topic comes in,” Deems said. “This new capability to map explicitly how much snow is in the mountains and how reflective it is or isn’t, it’s starting to enable a new paradigm in water management.”

Deems said he hopes those who attend the presentation leave with a better appreciation and understanding of what the dust on snow phenomenon does, the impact it has, where it comes from and what we can do about it.

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