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The Significance of Snow

Blog by: Sam Hinkle, Field Trip Coordinator and Educator

If you take 5 minutes to talk with me, chances are you will find out that I like snow. Playing in the snow has always been one the greatest joys in my life. I grew up digging tunnels in my grandparents’ front yard, sledding in Monument Valley Park on every snow day, and skiing Monarch every weekend I could afford. I just loved playing in that dry, white, Colorado snow.

I just had no idea how significant the snow, and its color, was to me as a Colorado resident.

According to the Colorado River Water Users Association, roughly 80% of Colorado’s water supply starts as that bright white stuff in the mountains. Snow’s bright white color is important to more than just the ski-goggle industry; it indicates that snow is one of the most effective natural reservoirs of water known to humans. We interpret the color of snow as white because snow reflects nearly all the light that hits it. That means when the sun is shining, the snow reflects nearly all of that sunlight. Since sunlight has all the colors in the visual spectrum, we see it as white. When snow reflects all of these colors, we see it as white as well.

Scientists have a word for this reflectivity. It’s called albedo. An object’s albedo is rated on a scale from 0 to 1, where 0 means absolutely no light is reflected by the object and 1 means all light is reflected. It’s kinda like a percentage of light reflected by an object. Fresh snow can have an albedo of up to 0.90. 90% of light that touches fresh snow is reflected.

Now, while the albedo explains why snow is white, it is more significant to us than that. Light is energy, specifically shortwave energy. If snow reflects nearly all the light that touches it, that means that hardly any of that shortwave energy goes to melting the snow, let alone evaporating it (sublimation is insignificant). Essentially, as long as the temperature is below freezing, the snow stays as snow. It’s the difference between trying to melt snow with a flashlight in a room kept at 10 degrees F and trying to melt snow in a room kept at 70 degrees F.

The same is not true for liquid water. Its albedo is less than 0.1. That means water absorbs more than 90% of the light energy that hits it, and that absorbed energy can heat up and evaporate the water.

Now thermodynamics are cool and all, but why should anyone other than an absolute geek like me care? Well, if you are a resident of the Western United States, you should care. Much of our water resources start as snow. In Colorado, 80% of our water starts as snow according to the Colorado River Water Users Association. 80% of our water starts in the naturally evaporation-resistant reservoir of snow, waiting to melt into naturally-regulated and relatively-predictable spring runoff.

Yet, Western US residents store much of their water in liquid form. Think about Lake Powell, a segment of the Colorado River backed up behind the Glen Canyon Dam to provide water to the Upper Basin States like Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. The lake contains over  4.72 trillion gallons of liquid water, all sitting under the hot desert sun, absorbing all that energy and, you guessed it, evaporating.

And this evaporation is significant. We lose over 160 billion gallons of water every year from Lake Powell to evaporation. To put that in perspective, the United States owes 488 billion gallons of Colorado River water to Mexico every year. Every year, we lose more than a third of the Colorado River water we owe to Mexico simply due to evaporation from Lake Powell.

Water is sacred in the West; so too is anything that adds resiliency to our water supply, like the shiny, white color of snow. As creatures that need to drink water, then, I leave you with an old ski-bum adage: Pray for snow!

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Catamount Institute
740 West Caramillo St.
Colo Spgs, CO 80907
Phone: (719) 471-0910
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