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Scientists Chris Landry adds simulated dust to snow in the mountains of Colorado to study how dust affects snowmelt.
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Courtesy of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies

Desert Dust Alters Ecology of Colorado Alpine Meadows
News story originally written on June 29, 2009

Dust blown into the mountains of Colorado is causing snow to melt faster in the springtime. This has an impact on plants that live on high mountaintops.

The dust is from the desert in the southwest United States. More dust blows into the mountains today because there are more people living in the desert who change the way land is used, which creates more dust. Also, climate change is causing the desert to get warmer and drier, which will likely cause even more dust in the future.

All that dust makes the snowy mountaintops look different. The snow that remains in the spring gets so covered with desert dust that it looks like soil. Dark colored dust reflects less sunlight than white snow. This means there is more heat, which causes snow to melt faster.

To study how dust affects snowmelt and plants, the scientists spread dust on areas of snow. They measured how much the dust sped melting and how mountain plants were affected.

The timing of snowmelt signals to mountain plants that it's time to start growing and flowering. Early snowmelt caused by dust could change this. For example, many species of plants could flower at the same time, increasing competition for water and nutrients. This could cause the plants that fill mountain meadows to change.

Last modified July 7, 2009 by Lisa Gardiner.

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