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California drought: Dust contributes to snow pack melt, says JPL scientist

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Alpine crags rise north of Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental US at 14,494 feet, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which carry less snow than normal, on May 9, 2008 near Lone Pine, California.
David McNew/Getty Images
Alpine crags rise north of Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental US at 14,494 feet, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which carry less snow than normal.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Tom Painter studies how dust affects the melt rate of the Sierra snow pack.

When you think of melting snow pack, climate change may come to mind — but dust... maybe not so much. One scientist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory says dust can actually have a huge impact on how quickly our snow pack melts, which poses a big problem for California’s drought.

JPL snow hydrologist Tom Painter has studied the effects of dust on snow pack for about 10 years. He’s found that when dust gets into snow, it tends to absorb sunlight better than snow without dust.

He says the phenomenon is akin to a white car sitting in the sun versus a black car: The white car is not going to absorb as much of sunlight as the black car would. Even small amounts of dust can have the same effect on snow, Painter says.

Painter’s decade-long study has taken place in the Colorado River Basin. So far, results have found dust causes snow pack to melt away between one and two months earlier.  This poses a problem for water management and reservoir operations, Painter says.

“It’s like if you turned on your sink at home, and all of the month’s worth of water supply came rushing out all at one time. It’s a lot more difficult to manage and hold on to,” Painter says.

Most of the dust in our snow pack comes from the central valley, Painter says. But, other sources include the east side of Sierras and even transported from Asia.

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