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Date: 03/16/2024     State: CO     Issues: Climate, Off Road Vehicles, Student Education, Watersheds     Partners: Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers Airport Origin : Aspen, CO    


We flew to examine the spring season's first dust-on-snow event with Colorado Avalanche Information Center and to educate students with Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteer's Youth In Nature program.

The Elk Mountains are a critical water source for the entire West, with the Roaring Fork River providing between 6-12% of the Colorado River's annual flow. All of this water is held in the seasonal snowpack, one of our most valuable reservoirs. Each spring, the gradual melting of snow provides a steady, reliable flow of water that sustains major western cities, ranches, and agriculture. The Elk Mountains' snowpack is vulnerable to climate change, the ongoing drought, and is threatened by a third issue - dust-on-snow.

Late winter and spring storms often deposit a layer of red dust, carried by storms coming from the arid southwest. The dust enters the atmosphere due to increased soil crust and vegetation disturbance in the desert from OHV recreation, grazing, mining, and other human activities that create sediment. Once airborne, this layer of dust is carried many miles by wind and storms, and falls as reddish-brown snow here in the Elk Mountains. This dust drastically reduces the snowpack's albedo (a measurement of reflectivity). The dark-colored dusty snow absorbs more solar radiation than clean, bright snow would. This causes rapid melting and water scarcity later in the year. Experts have found that dust-on-snow events have reduced the Colorado River's flow by roughly 5%, a massive decrease for an already over-allocated river that supports 40 million people.

From the air, we were able to clearly see this season's first dust-on-snow event, and the snowmelt it has already caused at all elevations. As human impacts become more disruptive in the desert, and climate change continues to reduce our water supply, dust-on-snow events will become more severe. It is critical we work together to combat climate change and manage our desert wilderness to mitigate for the dust-on-snow phenomena and preserve the precious natural resource, water.

EcoFlight is pleased to provide you with these photos from the flight and these geo-referenced flight photos.

Flight Images

Flight Location