ENVIRONMENT

‘Watermelon snow’ piques curiosities in Utah after wet winter

Jun 30, 2023, 1:00 PM | Updated: 2:03 pm

Watermelon snow in Utah! High up in the mountains, amid pinyon pine and quaking aspen trees, the re...

Jana Brough walks across pink-hued snow at Tony Grove Lake on Wednesday, June 28, 2023, near Logan, Utah. The snow's color has piqued the curiosities of hikers and campers throughout Utah this summer (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

LOGAN, Utah (AP) — High up in the mountains, amid pinyon pine and quaking aspen trees, the remaining remnants of the winter’s snow is dotted with hues of pinks, purples and oranges.

Hikers, campers and church youth groups journeying by grasp it in their palms and liken it to flavored snow cones, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, pink lemonade, dissolved blood or if passersby conducted an art project using red food coloring.

“It’s almost like it’s been sprinkled with Himalayan salt or even Kool-Aid powder,” Jana Brough, a mother hiking with friends and family at Tony Grove Lake in Utah’s Logan Canyon, said this week. “But when you scrape it you can tell it’s just on the surface.”

From the roads that traverse mountain passes above Park City to the Bear River Range near the Utah-Idaho border, last winter’s record snowfall is heating up, baking under the sunlight and turning hues of red. The presence of so-called “watermelon snow” — referred to unofficially due to its pinkish tint — is piquing the curiosities of photo-seeking visitors and raising a host of questions about nature, health and climate. Its prevalence this summer is particularly striking on ridges and in mountain ranges where snow would have melted by now in drier years.

The technicolor snow appears in high-altitude environments throughout the globe including the French Alps and Japan’s Mountains of Dewa when a perfect storm of conditions — water content, sunlight, temperatures and the presence of nutrients — awaken dormant green algae called chlamydomonas nivalis that thrive in cold temperatures. The algae swim to the surface of the snow, where they bloom and divide. Upon arrival, when they’re hit by sun and ultraviolet rays, their color changes to absorb radiation and protect themselves from damage.

Utah’s watermelon snow is common at high altitudes 

Scott Hotaling, a Utah State University ecologist who studies biodiversity in cold and high altitude environments, likened the algae’s ability to produce a secondary pigment to humans, whose skin uses pigmentation to absorb ultraviolet radiation and protect from the sun.

“They need some kind of pigmentation to prevent damage related to the high-UV of the environment they’re in. So they produce the secondary pigment largely for that purpose to protect themselves,” he said.

Hotaling said the algae poses little risk to human health or to animals like cattle, dogs or fish, should they encounter it as it melts into water. But even though it’s not a risk to clean water supply, the “watermelon snow” phenomenon does cause snow to melt more quickly, raising environmental concerns about seasonal snowmelt patterns and the longevity of the glaciers where the algae are known to thrive.

Though snow becoming water makes it available to nourish the algae, the exposure of bare ground changes how much light is reflected versus absorbed. Darker colors absorb more sunlight, turning snow banks and glaciers into liquid more quickly.

The changes in the magnitude and timing of the melting — the exposure of bare ground earlier in the season — can cause problems in the Mountain West, affecting ecosystems and species that rely on cool water downstream and reservoirs designed to accommodate more gradual snowmelt. In places like the Artic, glacier melt can cause sea level rise, threatening flooding on coastlines and in lakes.

“When we add light-absorbing particles that essentially darken the snow — like snow algae, black carbon or dust — it reduces its ability to reflect solar radiation,” said Alia Khan, a biogeochemist that studies glaciers at Western Washington University.

 

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Environment

David Gordon of North Ogden starts to flip off his innertube on the Weber River near Henefer on Thu...

Mariah Maynes

DWR partners with concessionaire to manage popular Weber River tubing area

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said that it has partnered with a private concessionaire to manage a popular tubing area.

1 day ago

Fresh snow covers slopes at Snowbird, a body was found at snowbird on monday...

Mariah Maynes

Body of missing skier found at Snowbird

Authorities said that they found a body at Snowbird Ski Resort after they received a call about an overdue skier.

1 day ago

Rural wildlife firefighters, "Hot Shots"...

Michael Camit

Utah is struggling to retain its rural ‘Hotshots’

Filling jobs of rural wildlife firefighters can be difficult due to the cost of living according to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fires and State Lands.

1 day ago

The 910 Cattle Ranch, a sprawling property in the western part of Summit County, will be purchased ...

Collin Leonard, KSL.com

Summit County to acquire largest open space in its history for $55 million

The 910 Cattle Ranch, a sprawling property in the western part of Summit County, will be purchased after grant funding is made available in 2025.

4 days ago

great salt lake shown, lithium in the lake is attracting companies...

Adam Small

A trove of lithium in Great Salt Lake is turning heads. Managers drafting rules to protect the water

Extraction companies are interested in lithium in the Great Salt Lake, but state managers want to set rules to prevent the loss of lake water.

4 days ago

container garden shown...

Mitchell von Puttkammer

How to plant in a container garden

Maria, Taun, and their guest cover practical tips on how to successfully plant a vibrant container garden. Listen to the KSL Greenhouse show.

4 days ago

Sponsored Articles

a doctor putting her hand on the chest of her patient...

Intermountain Health

Intermountain nurse-midwives launch new gynecology access clinic

An access clinic launched by Intermountain nurse-midwives provides women with comprehensive gynecology care.

Young couple hugging while a realtor in a suit hands them keys in a new home...

Utah Association of Realtors

Buying a home this spring? Avoid these 5 costly pitfalls

By avoiding these pitfalls when buying a home this spring, you can ensure your investment will be long-lasting and secure.

a person dressed up as a nordic viking in a dragon boat resembling the bear lake monster...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

The Legend of the Bear Lake Monster

The Bear Lake monster has captivated people in the region for centuries, with tales that range from the believable to the bizarre.

...

Live Nation Concerts

All the artists coming to Utah First Credit Union Amphitheatre (formerly USANA Amp) this summer

Summer concerts are more than just entertainment; they’re a celebration of life, love, and connection.

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

‘Watermelon snow’ piques curiosities in Utah after wet winter