ENVIRONMENT

Pink snow in Utah mountains of interest to researchers

Jan 4, 2023, 6:00 AM

Ski patrol crews are searching the Chickadee run at Snowbird Ski Resort after an avalanche there. V...

FILE: Snowbird resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon. The avalanche risk in both Big and Little Cottonwood canyons is so unique compared to other canyons and the large amount of snow the state has received has added to that. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

(Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY —  Researchers at Utah State University are looking into the pink snow some may see in Utah’s higher elevations. They want to know if it poses an environmental threat in the form of snowmelt. 

It’s actually green algae that live on snow in mountains all around the world according to Scott Hotaling with the Department of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University.

“The reason they turn red and have this blooming pattern is that, by being red, and darker color than the snow around them, they absorb more light and heat, and they thereby melt the snow around them,” Hotaling told KSL NewsRadio.

He said that anything that darkens snow, whether dust from the Great Salt Lake, a branch, or a snow algal bloom, causes the snow to absorb more heat and melt more quickly.

A writer with High Country News, Kylie Mohr, writes that learning more about how snow algae grow is important to understanding our changing water supply. That’s why scientists like Hotaling do the work they do. 

Hotaling said scientists haven’t pinned down why these blooms occur where they do, and what makes them bigger or smaller.

“What we’re trying to understand is what makes these snow algal blooms occur. And, is there any kind of climate change factor? Or anthropogenic (pollution or environmental change resulting from human activity) like farming practices [that contribute],” he said.

Hotaling cites studies of snow algal blooms in Alaska that showed that snow algae alone accounted for 17% of the total snow melt on an ice field during the summer. 

“Are there things that are happing that might make those snow algal blooms increase in their frequency and size?”

“Because if that happens,” he said, “then we do have a Utah problem.”

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Pink snow in Utah mountains of interest to researchers