Colorado snow researchers soon to go looking for dust |

Colorado snow researchers soon to go looking for dust

Allen Best
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

SILVERTON, Colo. ” It will soon be time for Chris Landry to start looking for dust in the mountains of Colorado.

Already, a layer of dust was deposited on the snow in the San Juan Mountains and some other areas of Colorado. That was in mid-December, but the dustiest months are during spring, when storms lift dirt from the deserts of the Southwest and carry them several hundred miles.

Landry runs the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, which recently held a grand opening in new digs in Silverton. Unlike most of the Victorian-era mining town, the building is relatively new, constructed in 2000 by a custom furniture and cabinet-maker.

At 4,400 square feet, it’s big enough for an office, with space for workshops and even living quarters for Landry. In the past, Landry sometimes held workshops in a shed that was neither heated nor lit. “Looking back, it’s amazing how much we got done in that shed,” he says.

Landry, who is in his 50s, is tall and lanky and absolutely comfortable in snow. July is another matter. “Summer is to be endured,” he muttered in the midst of one heat spell in Silverton when the temperature got into ” steel yourself for this ” the mid 80s.

Landry grew up at Whitefish, Mont., where his father, a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division, and his mother managed Whitefish Mountain Resort, then called Big Mountain.

Later, living in Carbondale and working in Aspen, he became known as one of the nation’s top extreme skiers, although this was long before “extreme skiing” became a branding category.

Nearly a decade ago, he returned to college, getting a master’s degree from Montana State in snow studies, and then in 2002 set up shop in Silverton. What he and his boosters had in mind was a research station that could assist scientists. To that end, he got permission from the U.S. Forest Service to establish what amounts to an outdoor laboratory, to take measurements at two sites in the surrounding San Juan Mountains relatively unaffected by localized sources, such as roads or snowmobiles.

One of his first major clients and collaborators was Tom Painter, now from the University of Utah, who wanted to test the proposition of how snow blown in by storms affects the rate of runoff of the snowpack. His conclusions: a lot. The dirt in the snow absorbs heat, melting the snow. Pure snow reflects the sun’s rays to a much greater extent. Painter’s study found that runoff may come several weeks earlier because of the dust.

Landry and associates now have contracts with eight major water agencies in Colorado ” from Durango to Denver, and from Glenwood Springs to Loveland ” to look for layers of dust in the snowpack to better predict the runoff. They will be sampling sites in the Front Range at Loveland and Berthoud passes; plus other sites near Taylor Park Reservoir (near Crested Butte); Wolf Creek Pass and Slumgullion Pass (near Lake City); at McClure Pass (near Aspen), and in northern Colorado in the area between Winter Park and Steamboat Springs.

“We’re quite excited about how this has evolved. It has gone from basic research to a fully applied science in a very short time,” Landry said.

At the grand opening, he was asked why snow is white. He explained that it isn’t always white ” that if you peer into a hole of snow, it’s likely to have a bluish hue, the result of the light-transmitting properties of snow.

Of course, dig down into a snowpack in spring, and the snow might be brown or black. There’s likely to be a layer of dust under that carpet of white.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User