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Researchers dig into how pink snow affects snowpack

 Snow algae core sample in Mt Rainier National Park.
Jim Elser
/
Snow algae core sample in Mt Rainier National Park.

Have you ever seen a patch of pink or red snow on a mountain top?

That’s snow algae. Jim Elser of the University of Montana and fellow researchers are traversing Western mountains to find out what feeds and deepens the color of blooms. He says when the algae is darker, it absorbs more heat and melts the snow faster – potentially hastening the melting of mountain snowpack.

“When you have a cocktail or a soft drink or something like that and you have your ice cubes in it, as long as there is a little bit of ice in there, your drink stays pretty cold," Elser said. "But as soon as that last bit of ice goes away, then your drink gets warm really fast.”

 Melted snow that had snow algae also known as "glacier blood" in Glacier National Park.
Jim Elser
/
Melted snow that had snow algae also known as "glacier blood" in Glacier National Park.

That warming and the timing of snowpack runoff have big consequences for water supplies, with downstream effects on everything from wildfires to fish.

The research team wonders if human sources of nitrogen or phosphorus near urban and agricultural centers are making snow dirtier in some places, leading to bigger algae blooms.

“We’re interested in whether or not these sorts of human sources of nitrogen and phosphorus might be making snow dirtier in one place or another, and therefore growing bigger blooms of snow algae that would then lead to faster snow melt,” Elser said.

Their snow algal bloom research – which was first covered by High Country News – has taken the researchers to Glacier National Park, the Swan Range and Beartooth Mountains in Montana, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and Uinta Mountains in Utah, and to the Cascades in Washington and Oregon.

Elser hopes his team's findings will add to our understanding of how climate change is altering high alpine ecosystems.

“As soon as we lose that last ice cube at high elevations in our mountain regions, then our streams are going to warm up and it’s not going to be a linear effect – it’ll be all at once,” he said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2023 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Emma Gibson