The Rocky Mountains Have A Dust Problem ~ ‘especially the SW mountains of Colorado’ NPR


Jeff Derry, director of the Colorado-based Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, digs a snow pit at the Swamp Angel monitoring site in the San Juan Mountains.

Luke Runyon/KUNC


A menace lurks beneath the snow high up in the southern Rocky Mountains: Dust. Lots and lots of dust.

This dust speeds up spring water runoff, causing intense melting and streams to peak weeks earlier than usual — which wrecks havoc throughout the alpine ecosystem. Water managers and fire forecasters alike are sounding the alarm about the consequences of less water flowing in streams and reservoirs.

At first glance the dust seems innocuous. How could something so simple undermine water infrastructure, stress wildlife and lengthen the wildfire season all at once?

For most of the winter, dust stays buried under blankets of snow. Then, as the days grow longer and the sun’s rays begin to melt the top layers, it begins to show. To see the dust before this happens, you need to dig a snow pit.

In the spring, Jeff Derry can often be found waist-deep in one of these pits, somewhere in the southern Rocky Mountains. Derry, the director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton, Colo., pays close attention to the amount of dust that winds up embedded in snow.

“I’ll be curious if you’re going to be able to see the dust event we had Feb. 18 and 19,” Derry said one day in April, shoveling snow over the edge of a half-formed pit. “It is very subtle.”

Derry uses a range of instruments to pull details from the pits, each fine-tuned to measure snow qualities such as temperature, density and reflectivity. But the best way to gauge the magnitude of a dust layer is with the human eye, Derry said.

White snow melts slower than snow covered in dust because of its high albedo, or reflectivity. It reflects radiation from the sun rather than absorb it.

Courtesy of the Center For Snow and Avalanche Studies

“It’s very qualitative in a sense,” he said. “You go out, you look for it, you dig, you see what you see.”

In Derry’s current cross-sectioned snowpack, about 7 inches down, is a beige-colored band of dust.

This tiny little strip of dust has the potential to upend how water is managed in the West. Eventually, Derry says, this snow will melt and empty into the Colorado River. Its watershed provides water for some 40 million people in the southwest.

When there’s no dust on the snow, it’s brilliantly white: On a sunny day, this kind of snow can be reflective enough to cause eye damage. Without dirt or dust, the snow melts off slow and steady — like the drumbeat of a drip from a faucet. Dust cases the snow gets darker and absorb more sunlight.

“It melts the snow faster than it would have otherwise,” Derry says. “And then it melts down to the next dust layer, and so on and so forth until all the dust layers have combined at the surface of the snowpack greatly reducing the [reflectivity].”


A thin, barely visible stripe of dust sits about 7 inches down in snowpack in Colorado’s San Juan mountains.

Luke Runyon/KUNC


When these dust layers combine, the sun’s radiation quickens the pace of runoff, making it all that more difficult to capture and divvy up the precious water.

This quickened runoff makes managing water harder and upsets mountain ecosystems, causing earlier green up of vegetation. And when snow melts earlier, wildfires have more opportunity to spark and take hold.

Most of the dust that’s settling in places like the San Juan mountains comes from the desert southwest, from land disturbances like farming, oil and gas drilling, cattle grazing, recreation and residential development on the southern end of the Colorado Plateau.

“It’s kind of a slow crisis, a slow disaster,” said Rich Reynolds, an emeritus researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver. “It’s not like a hurricane. It’s not like an earthquake or a volcano.”

In the past 50 years, as the Sun Belt boomed, scientists recorded a dramatic rise in the amount of dust being deposited on snow — which forces fundamental changes in how spring runoff occurs. Reynolds says reversing this trend won’t be an easy task.

“There’s no one size fits all in terms of mitigation for these kinds of source areas,” he said. “Plus, these are large, large areas.”

In a 2010 study researcher, scientists found that in heavy dust years, the Colorado River’s flow on average peaked three weeks earlier than in years without heavy dust deposition.

The same study also found that earlier melting snow reduces the amount of water that runs to the Colorado River by about 5 percent. That’s more water lost than the entire state of Nevada uses from the river in a year.

And then there’s climate change.

University of Utah hydrologist McKenzie Skiles recently co-authored a study that examined whether warmer temperatures or dust are greater threats to snowpacks.

“What we found looking at those two in this region, is that it was actually dust that controlled snowmelt timing and magnitude and sort of how fast snow ran out of the mountains, as opposed to temperature,” Skiles said. “We didn’t see any relationship to temperature at all.”

Warming temperatures are more likely to affect and diminish total snow accumulation, causing some snow to come down as rain. But when it comes to runoff, dust is the controlling factor. It’s the sun’s rays that force snow to melt, not outside air temperature.

While science is beginning to paint a clearer picture of how this phenomenon plays out, Skiles says that there’s plenty the field doesn’t know about dust.

“We still have some questions on what controls the actual dynamics of the dust events themselves,” she said. “We see dust in every year, but there’s a high variability between the amount of dust that’s deposited each year.”

Back in the San Juan mountains, Derry says he’s bracing for more dust events this spring. The mountain range has registered five dust events since October. Derry says the San Juans are ground zero for this problem. And because they’re a key part of an already overtaxed Colorado River system, he says everyone in the seven U.S. states and in Mexico that depend on the river should be concerned.

“We’re located at the headwaters of four major watersheds,” Derry says. “And our mountain systems are undergoing change at a fundamental level.”

Change that could make the West an increasingly dry — and dusty — place.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant.

Angela Hawse – The Heart of a Guide


I met Angela in the late 80’s skiing on RMP then saw her later down the road when she was on a Prescott College Avalanche Forecasting/Snow Science Course I was working on Red Mountain. I’m positive she had been in Vegas climbing and ended up at the Circus Circus one night running head–on with a life changing quote above the casino Exit as she walked out, “MUST BE PRESENT TO WIN”. I think she took it to heart because she was cool and a great student … Showed up, was present, took showers which Prescotteers are not know for and asked all the right questions … I asked her to join me for the next January, Prescott Avy program to help with the new hatching of Prescotteers as a student assistant/intern..

She did and fulfilled all of the position requirements with great style … She would show up early, because if your not early, your late! But more importantly she covered for my mistakes & questionable behavior which was a big part of the job description … she was a great personal handler & generally made me look good.

Anyway, this is about Angela not me. I didn’t see her for a decade or so after that program then one day I was walking down the street & there she was standing in front of me with her big smile – she had moved to Ridgway. So now I see her occasionally when she’s not off to Asia or Antarctica or some of the other places she guides her many happy clients.

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Angela has become a very skilled and well known guide. Was named AMGA Guide of the Year in 2011 and is currently Vice President of the Association. She also guides and prepares weather forecasts for Telluride HeliTrax. I could go on but the important thing … she and MonkE are local celebrities and a great addition to the community. Think I’ll go find her and get an autograph…

Check out the podcast below. It’s a nice slice of who she is and some of what she does. It’s very cool.



Legendary climber, Angela Hawse was asked to be the Deputy Leader of the first Adaptive Climb of Everest in 1998 by Tom Whittaker. She willfully accepted the position and played a key role in the success of Tom’s journey to the summit. She overcame her own personal challenges by way of a summit bid, just 275 ft short of Everest proper, and despite her drive to reach the top, was told by Tom that he would choose a videographer as his second summit bid partner over her. Tom and the videographer succeeded, and Angela, although disappointed, was able to embody her ethos that the journey is more fulfilling than the destination.





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Angela & MonkE going out for dinner.

all photos Angela Hawse collection

Levi Heinold Celebration of Life this Sunday ~ Ridgway town park 4 p.m.

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Join Friends and Family of Levi Heinold 

    In  Celebration of  his Life

   On Sunday, April 1st at 4 P. M.

  at Ridgway Town Park.

    A Potluck will directly follow

   in Town Hall




 A “go fund me” memorial donation account has been set up in support of the Heinold “girls”

A storm day with highway forecaster Ann Mellick, CAIC




– Donate at Even a donation of $20 goes a long way!
– Send a gift by check to: Friends of CAIC, PO Box 267, Grand Junction, CO 81502




“What is a storm day like?

You never know what to expect on a storm day. The action may ramp up or fizzle out. I have to be prepared for the former, rather than depend on the latter. As a highway forecaster, it is my job to track critical weather changes that may endanger highway travelers day and night.

I spend a lot of time looking at snow, measuring and quantifying it on the ground, as well as looking at it on the computer – gathering information on the past, present and future weather. On storm days this is all done while juggling phone and radio calls and trying to determine the best course of action. Have we received a critical amount of snow? Do we close the road and wait for the storm to pass or can we just do spot mitigation and try to keep it open?

Sometimes during a storm I have the luxury of getting on my skis to see how the new snow is reacting. Other times, I drive slick roads with poor visibility, gawking at avalanche paths and gathering clues as to what might happen next.

On storm days I have to be prepared for anything and bring plenty of snacks! You never know what you may find. There may be an unchained semi truck blocking the highway, backing up traffic under dangerous avalanche paths. There may be a backcountry rescue or a lost traveler. Maybe there is just a steady snowfall and a lone fox skulking down the highway looking for breakfast. When I leave the calm and warmth of my cabin on storm mornings, I never know when I might get home. It always feels good when I do though. With this job, as in all of life, there is no guarantee.”

– CAIC Highway Avalanche Forecaster, Ann Mellick

P.C. & Battleship 044

a little dusting

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closing RMP and siting the 105


      CDOT  Cover Girl

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enjoying ‘Pisco Hour’ with a potential donor.

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Reggie, famoso perro de avalancha de Portillo ~ Feb/March 2004 – March 2018 ~ What a Great Dog!


Cover Boy for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, Portillo Chile

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAReggie’s first winter in Silverton as a avalanche intern along with his saddle pal Mark Rawstoned



Reggie’s 1st CDOT explosive training March, 2004 with The Brit & Don rōbert 


Another season in the San Juan’s with Mark and friends 


On a pisco tour in the Atacama

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Getting seasoned in Portillo during a big Andean storm with avalanche forecaster & handler/compay, Mark Rawstoned




killing time in Silverton with the master 


                     Taking a nap after a long day of avalanche mitigation


Visiting el jefe (Henry Purcell) office Portillo Chile


Enjoying his retirement in the Andes with best friend Winnie.


Historic low flow in 107 years of record keeping on the Animas River ~ The Durango Herald

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Trickle can be attributed to drought-like conditions

The Animas River has been setting records this week, but not the kind of records you want to see for the waterway that cuts through the heart of Durango.

According to a U.S. Geological Survey gauge station that has 107 years of water level data, there have been record-low flows almost daily.

The previous record low for March 6 was set in 1990 when the Animas River was flowing at 121 cubic feet per second. On Tuesday, the Animas River was flowing at 104 cfs. And on Wednesday, the previous record low of 118 cfs in the 1990s was shattered when the Animas River averaged 107 cfs.

These numbers are provisional and must be confirmed by the USGS. They are based on the daily average discharge levels recorded at a gauge station near the Powerhouse Science Center, 1333 Camino del Rio.

The dismally low flows can be tied to drought-like conditions that have plagued Southwest Colorado this winter, said Jeff Derry, executive director of the Center for Snow & Avalanche Studies.

The Animas River typically flows to a near trickle in fall and winter as snowpack builds up in the higher elevations before eventually melting into peak flows during spring and early summer. But this winter is abnormal.

For context, the mean flow for the Animas River on March 8 is 240 cfs. But a gauge reading at 9:30 a.m. Thursday showed the river flowed at less than half that – about 114 cfs – a record low.

Derry said extremely dry conditions in the fall created these historically low flows, and the dryness continued most of the winter. That, in part, has caused the water table to remain low.

Even worse, terrain at lower elevations is bone dry.

SNOTEL stations (weather-monitoring sites operated by National Resource Conservation Service) are mainly located above 10,000 feet in elevation, and even there, snowpack is at only 50 percent of normal, based on about 40 years of records. Low elevations aren’t tracked as closely.

A SNOTEL station at Cascade Creek at 8,800 feet, near Purgatory Resort, measured the snowpack at 34 percent of normal Thursday.

Jerry Archuleta, with the National Resource Conservation Service in Pagosa Springs, said the latest stream flow forecasts show the Animas River’s spring runoff is likely to be less than 50 percent of normal averages.

NRCS data show water storage in Southwest Colorado reservoirs is about 105 percent, compared with 114 percent at this time last year.

Carryover storage from last year’s heavy snow totals will help with this year’s coming drought, but it could hurt irrigators next year, said Bruce Whitehead, executive director of Southwestern Water Conservation District.

Whitehead said this year mirrors another notably dry and dangerous year: 2002, the year of the Missionary Ridge Fire. Right now, the region is above 2002’s snowpack levels, but that could rise or fall depending on the weather.

The United States Drought Monitor’s data indicates this year is actually worse than 2002.

“It doesn’t look good,” Whitehead said. “Hopefully we get some more moisture. In the past, we’ve had late spring storms come in and bring snowpack up considerably.”

Jim White, an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said fish populations in the Animas River are safe – for now; the water is still cold and fish are too inactive to detect problems.

Once water temperatures begin to rise, though, fish and aquatic bugs will become more active but will have less room to move around because of low water. This can cause overcrowding and lead to deadly diseases.

“Then we could also have sediment and algae issues, so yeah, we’re concerned for the long term,” White said. “The outlook is not looking good for these fish and the river.”

Right now, there are no signs that it is going to change.

Andrew Lyons, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said the La Niña weather pattern that cuts Southwest Colorado off from any meaningful moisture is expected to persist until at least May.

That means for the next three months, below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures will continue in Durango.

For the record, it appears the lowest the USGS gauge station has ever recorded the Animas River flowing was about 100 cfs.


Interesting this winter season of 2017-18 is about 50% of average (SNOTEL 30 yr. average) but not a record low for the Rio Grande Basin, San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River Basins (see information below).  1976-77 set the gold standard for record low Snow/Water Equivalent ~ ‘SWE’ for the last 42 years.  Next in line for low SWE were 1980-81, 1990-91 and then 2001-02.  I’d like to understand how/why the Animas River can be at a record low in 107 yrs of history knowing that this years low, but not record low snow pack doesn’t line up with the empirical evidence of the Animas flow ??  …  rōbert



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