[REGIONAL NEWS] Dust blowing off the shrinking Great Salt Lake is eroding Wasatch snowpack and that could eventually threaten drinking water

University of Utah geography professor McKenzie Skiles, right, measures snow density, a step toward estimating the amount of water in the snowpack, at a test site in the Sierra Nevada./(Photo courtesy of McKenzie Skiles


By Brian Maffly | Salt Lake City Tribune

The winds kicked up in Utah’s West Desert ahead of a late-season storm blowing out of the south and into the Wasatch Mountains, which were then coated with a heavier-than-usual snowpack. But soon the winds shifted west and scraped up particles from the bed of the Great Salt Lake, left exposed from chronically receding lake levels.

The wind event on April 13, 2017, was just what McKenzie Skiles, a young professor of geography who harbors a deep fascination with snow, was waiting for.

She left her office in Salt Lake City to visit a study plot she and her University of Utah research team set up at the town of Alta high up in the Wasatch’s Little Cottonwood Canyon. Freshly deposited dust was darkening the snow.

From her team’s measurements, Skiles has concluded that these particles, particularly from the Great Salt Lake’s ever-expanding dry bed, are significantly increasing the pace of the Wasatch Mountains’ spring runoff.

“We used the amount of dust in the snowpack to calculate how much additional sunlight the dust would absorb relative to a dust-free snowpack,” Skiles said. “We found that from this one event, dust accelerated snowmelt by five days. And dust from all events [in the spring of 2017] accelerated snowmelt by 25 percent.”


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December 2018