The town of Telluride, Colo., stretches out beneath Painter as he stands atop a 13,500-foot peak. Beyond the town is the Colorado Plateau, the source of most of the dust that lands in the Rockies.
The Colorado Rockies have been blasted by six dust storms since last December. That’s the worst it has been in at least two decades. And dust doesn’t just make the snow look bad. It makes the snow melt faster. That can spell trouble for farmers, power companies and others who rely on the water from the melting snow.
Scientist Thomas Painter recently set out to investigate the dusty snow. But, as he drove over a mountain pass, the blue sky wasn’t quite blue enough for Painter’s trained eye. He suspected we were driving through the sixth high-altitude dust storm of the year.
Dust Series, Part 2
Follow USGS ecologist Jayne Belnap into the Utah desert for a look at dust sources, and solutions.
“Now this will be exciting. It will be the first one that I’ve seen. I’ve always seen the remnants of them, but I never see them happen,” Painter said.
Painter continued to crane his neck as he studied the sky. He says this dust might have blown all the way from China. He was dying to get up to the snow so he could sample it, study it and worry about it. As we wound into the San Juan mountains in southwestern Colorado, the dust became more apparent.
“Whoa! This is very pink snow for this early,” Painter exclaimed.
Not Cat-in-the-Hat pink, but clearly not white, either, the way the snow usually is in the middle of spring.
The next day, Tom Painter drove up Red Mountain Pass and strapped on mountaineering skis to get a closer look.