Idaho Dust Storm Speeds Up Snowmelt: ‘Nobody On Our Staff Has Ever Witnessed Anything Similar’

A wind storm earlier this month covered a southwestern Idaho mountain range with dust from Oregon and Nevada and accelerated snowmelt due to the darker surface absorbing heat from the sun as opposed to being reflected by pristine white snow, scientists say.

Dust covers slopes of snow in Owyhee Mountains, March 8, 2013. Credit: USDA.

Another day, another amplifying feedback of Dust-Bowlification. The Idaho Statesman reports:

A dust storm that covered the mountains accelerated runoff at the end of winter, exposing scientists to a strange event.

Scientists say the storm on March 6 caused unprecedented melting. The dust-on-snow show came during five hours of wind that averaged 34 miles per hour and gusted up to 57 mph on ridgelines at the Reynolds Creek Experimental Watershed in the northern Owyhee Mountains.

Hydrologists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture research area then observed accelerated melting from March 10 to March 16, when a new dusting of snow covered the layer of dirty snow.

“Nobody on our staff has ever witnessed anything similar,” said research hydrologist Adam Winstral.

Considerable snow had already melted by March 11 at the same spot in Owyhee Mountains. Credit: USDA

The photos can be found on the The Idaho Statesman blog.

So what caused the dust storm? Remarkably, The Idaho Statesman explains:

Scientists are careful not to speculate about what could be causing the shifts in weather. They generally say that climate change is giving Idaho warmer winters and hotter summers that fuel bigger fires – which in turn leave the deserts with less native grasses to hold the soil.

Dust storms were reported in Oregon and Nevada last year after major wildfires. The Holloway Fire started Aug. 5 along the Oregon-Nevada border and quickly grew to 461,000 acres. The Long Draw Fire burned 582,000 acres in July.

Feedback builds on feedback. Kudos to The Idaho Statesman for its reporting on this story.
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11 Responses to Idaho Dust Storm Speeds Up Snowmelt: ‘Nobody On Our Staff Has Ever Witnessed Anything Similar’

  1. Carol says:

    We saw this a few winters ago here in Colorado, red Utah dust making the hillsides red. It was interesting but not fun.

  2. M Tucker says:

    We have heard a lot of that over the past several years:
    “Nobody on our staff has ever witnessed anything similar,”

    Get used to it. It is what is new in weather reporting…”ain’t ever seen that before.”

  3. Syd Bridges says:

    This is indeed another positive feedback. We saw a record low albedo on the Greenland Ice Sheet last year, leading to a record melt. Now we see dust from drying land and soot from forest fires beginning to lower the albedo of the snowpack.

    I notice how the dirt is concentrated as snow melts. When a parking lot is first cleared the piles are very white. But as the piles diminish they get darker as the dirt in the snow tends to concentrate at the surface. When that later snow melts, it will again expose the dust, and the melt will accelerate again, just as the darkening snow piles melt faster in the parking lots.

  4. SeaKat says:

    I read that Idaho is geoengineering (cloud seeding) and wonder if this could be one of those unintended consequences?

  5. catman306 says:

    I was thinking that this would have been included as an ‘unknown unknown’ in our list of climate change feedbacks.

    Now we know.

  6. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Don’t we have one of those snazzy acronyms for it yet? ME

  7. ozajh says:

    In a word, no. The quantity of dust used for cloud seeding is trivial in this context.

    Good question, though. Some of the geoengineering proposals I have read about have seriously scary potential for side effects.

  8. SeaKat says:

    I wasn’t thinking of the dust in cloud seeding, I was thinking of this dust storm being the result of their geoengineering. I hope that explains my thought process better!

  9. Paul Klinkman says:

    We may be having similar issues with excessive dust and soot on a worldwide scale.

    Sources: Midwest haboob dust storms, dust from the desertification of parts of China, megafires putting soot into the atmosphere, tundra fires, the toxic “brown cloud” covering Asia these days.

    Dust destinations: the Greenland ice sheet, the Arctic Ocean’s ice pack.

  10. I was once in eastern Oregon on a clear summer’s day about 20 years ago — putting flowers on the grave of my ex-girlfriend’s parents — when I looked up and saw a huge black cloud rolling toward us.


    We raced back to the car and rolled up the windows just before the whole sky turned so black and so thick with dust that we couldn’t see to drive for about 20 minutes — and after that visibility was limited for an hour. For miles, everything was covered with a thick layer of black-brown dust.

    I ”hain’t ever seen that before.” All I could think of was the opening scene in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, when the dust comes down and kills all the crops.

    However, I was told by the locals that those mini dust bowls did occur every once in a while in the Palouse. (Probably because of agricultural abuses and the destruction of native grasses.)

    What strikes me as weird about this one is that it’s happening in the middle of the winter, not mid-summer. The dust should be settled at this time of year. Then again, the Arctic should have a lot more sea ice, Hurricane Sandy should have gone out to sea, and the pine beetles should only spawn one generation a season.

  11. Spike says:

    Another unusual event – significant wildfires in Scotland very early in the year. I have never read of this outside our drier summers.