Bird’s Eye View of the Southwestern Snirt

Post by blogger | July 8, 2009      

Backcountry Skiing News

Snirt (snow-dirt) is a bummer for skiers, but at least gives scientists an excuse for interesting studies (and perhaps associated grants). This year’s unusually thick layer of snirt in Colorado’s San Juan mountains is the result of a dozen “dust events,” meaning millions of pounds of dirt are scoured by the wind from the southwestern U.S., then deposited on the first major mountain range in their path.

Not only does snirt make for crumby skiing, but it acts as a solar collector and melts the snow faster (stating the obvious). Our spring and summer snowpack is a virtual reservoir that gradually releases water throughout the warm seasons, thus providing a steady flow for urban use and agriculture. If it melts too fast, well, we end up with floods early on then low flows in the fall — with possible water shortages.

Backcountry Skiing

NASA's view of the snirt situation in Colorado's San Juan mountains, 2009 at the top, 2006 at the bottom.

What causes more snirt? I’d suspect over-grazing and perhaps development. It’s tempting to blame global warming as well, but scientists say “the present-day snow cover and hydrology of the American West have changed since the nineteenth century, independent of climate change… due to dust generated when the semi-arid landscapes of the western United States are disturbed by agriculture and grazing animals.” But, the credentialed brains do say that global warming is likely to exacerbate the problem. Sounds logical to me.

My take: If we get one more snirty spring that’s three in a row. That’ll convince me it’s time for us to change our normal annual spring spring skiing plans (we usually “staycation” around here) and be ready to do more traveling. The after/before photos below are from a NASA webpage on the subject.

By the way, over the years I’ve found that graphite wax works best for snirt.


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37 Responses to “Bird’s Eye View of the Southwestern Snirt”

  1. Mark July 8th, 2009 8:18 am

    Amazing photos for comparison. The dirty layer isn’t hard to see.

  2. Randonnee July 8th, 2009 9:49 am

    Cannot agree- “But, the credentialed brains do say that global warming is likely to exacerbate the problem. Sounds logical to me.” Agricultural practices combined with drought caused the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. In regard to GW I notice increasing politically-motivated alarmist group-chanting but no real clear, consistent ,and logical data to conclusively support such a “global” phenomenon. There is this data and that data and the random situation to support GW, but likewise similar that does not support it. One must adopt a politically-driven dogma in order to conclusively believe that the popular notion of GW is fact. In warmer times on the earth, farming was enhanced, not harmed, historical fact. I thought GW could cause more precipitation- actually it causes about everything except for the election of Republican politicians…Why is it that now GW must only cause harm, according to popular theory? Again, GW is completely credible only when framed politically.

  3. Dostie July 8th, 2009 10:00 am


    “GW is completely credible only when framed politically.”

    Indeed. One only needs to consider the engine that provides the heat source for the world and then compare the miniscule amount of energy man contributes to figure out our contribution has to be less than 1%.

  4. Dostie July 8th, 2009 10:03 am


    Don’t even start thinking about visiting the Sierra in April and May. Snirt doesn’t exist here, but the trailheads are already full and we don’t need no mo’ publicity about the awesome wild snow in the Sierra. Consider Oregon. 😉

  5. Lou July 8th, 2009 10:29 am

    I’ve read up on GW for some time, and do believe it’s not been a significant factor so far, and the predictions of what’s to come are varied. I do believe the climate has warmed a tiny amount in my lifetime, having lived in the same place for so long helps me with my sense of things… Regarding the snirt, my point is if the climate does get hotter, perhaps it’ll get even more arid in the Southwest, and we’ll get more snirt as a result. On the other hand, I’ve read that overall, if the climate warms, the amount of rain falling on the earth will increase. The question is, where. Trying to predict that would seem a bit difficult. I mean, if someone could predict that, they’d probabably already be as wealthy as Bill Gates by just doing stock picks.

  6. Tuck July 8th, 2009 10:45 am

    That’s a pretty big change from 2006 to 2009; it’s unlikely to be caused by any of the longer-term phenomenon you mention (even assuming one worships at the temple of GW).

    I’d guess development, for instance, is way down in 2009…

  7. Randonnee July 8th, 2009 10:49 am

    A retired meteorology Professor this week briefly discussed GW with me. I tried to prompt the discussion without prejudice, and the Professor happily went off in the typical Al Gore-media-type tirade. I patiently listened without giving an opinion and hoped for some facts and logic to support his rant. Really, his rant was just emotional and politically-framed, a disappointment coming from a Professor. I would hope for a “credentialed” person to state the case with logic and fact to support a theory. Unfortunately, typical. My quest to find sober logic and fact to support a GW theory is generally unfruitful…likewise my questioning of the religion (GW) causes much distress and sometimes sharp criticism, mocking or abuse directed at the questioner. My old-fashioned education taught the scientific method as more important than political dogma in regard to scientific observation. Apparently, the scientific method must be suspended for this new devotion to GW!

  8. Slave_To_Turns July 8th, 2009 11:05 am


    No one else is mentioning politics, specific political parties or the need for it to be evangelized but you.

    Just sayin’.

  9. Christian July 8th, 2009 11:10 am

    Eat more beef, make more turns.

  10. Mark July 8th, 2009 11:23 am

    I’ve actually heard the snirt increases as a result of the 4×4 rallies that happen in the desert during the spring. This may be one user group pointing their collective grubby fingers at another, but it seems plausible. Also, there are accounts of the deforestation of the southwest being caused by farming practices that predate the westward expansion of the 19th century.

  11. Randonnee July 8th, 2009 11:30 am

    Yes, sir, Slave_To_Turns, correct, thanks. That is the point, GW is mostly politics and bad science. All of the initiatives to “combat” GW involve regulation of personal rights or freedom and the redistribution of wealth in the name of saving the planet from GW = cap and trade.

    It is a simple matter to immediately prohibit an activity that poisons us- our elected leaders have the power to just prohibit use of fossil fuel etc. The problem is that it appears that there are actually more folks who would agree with me than with Al Gore. And folks have education and brains, not just “credentialed” persons.

    The fact is that most do not buy this GW thing, and that a source of frustration and perplexity to those who are certain of the Al Gore dogma. But, hey, your vote counts as much as mine, as does your opinion.

  12. Mike July 8th, 2009 12:15 pm

    Mark, there’s no doubt that 4×4 events in the desert kick up a lot of dust, but the sheer quantity of what’s here rules them out as a sole or even major cause.

  13. Scott July 8th, 2009 1:33 pm


    I’m not sure about your previous statements that “most” don’t buy GW. I found this fox news poll from 07:,2933,250571,00.html

    It seems to contradict the statement which you made with certainty. You definitely live in a very conservative area and likely have lots of contact with a traditionally conservative industry. You might re-evaluate whether you truly have an unbiased opinion.

    The science itself seems to be very complicated and not well understood — sort of like studying economics — such that it is nearly impossible for a lay person to have a credible opinion. It doesn’t help that there are reasons to question the “credited” persons motivations as well.

    All of this leaves me without a strong opionion, although I think that it can be shown quantitatively that the oceans have warmed over the last 50 years, that the ice sheets have been melting over the last 100 years, and that things are generally warming up over the short term. It isn’t clear how much of this is man-made, since the entire system is too complex to presently model accurately or completely.

    I don’t think I’d like much warming for personal reasons. I want to visit and climb in many of the heavily glacieted regions in the future. I already missed out on climbing the black ice couloir.

  14. Randonnee July 8th, 2009 2:12 pm

    Good points, Scott, I agree with a lot of what you say with some important exceptions. In my discussion, GW refers to the histrionic expression from the Al Gore school of alarmism. Some warming has occurred, obviously, but a lot of data is neither uniform nor conclusive. From your quoted article is the point that I am making: “driving and burning too much fossil fuel like coal and oil — is a contributor to the problem. Four in ten Americans say people are to blame outright (41 percent) and another 38 percent think it is a combination of human action and normal climate patterns. Few believe that global warming is an entirely natural occurrence (14 percent).” It remains the minority that drink the Al Gore koolaid.

    As far as your assertion “it is nearly impossible for a lay person to have a credible opinion,” well, I have to disagree. I have worked in some different technical fields, and I see that truly intelligent individuals are able to make their science understood generally. I strongly disagree that lay people may not understand- lay people posses education, intellect and even genius to match those “scientists.”

    My decades of casual observation in the north central Cascades shows climate changes or variations, but not something to support the GW hysteria. My elderly friends who have lived their lives in these mountains scoff at the GW hysteria and recall similar variations 50 and 60 years ago as we see now.

    Scott your statement “It isn’t clear how much of this is man-made, since the entire system is too complex to presently model accurately or completely” is spot on in my view and well said.

  15. Lou July 8th, 2009 2:21 pm

    I’d add that yes, sometimes one has to defer to a more educated and informed individual (such as a scientist), but I’d agree with Rando that if a lay person digs into a subject, they can have an informed take that can sometimes easily be on the level of the credentialed person. What is more, the nature of science is to question things, rather than just marching along to one beat. And an auto-didactic can be a scientist. Perhaps without a sheepskiin on the wall, but able to do science nonetheless.

    The thing is, and I don’t direct this at you guys but rather ask rhetorically , is that if we’re taken out of the debate because we’re not credentialed, then what level of credential does it take to enter the debate? Seems like the logic trail on that one leads to some pretty strange conclusions, such as that only PHDs can make policy, or perhaps those with a Masters or above, or perhaps we should only allow those individuals who have won a Nobel prize to make or inform policy.

    Interesting points. Please keep this one civil guys…

  16. milt July 8th, 2009 3:23 pm


    gw occurs not from human-released energy but by gases (particularly co2) released by human activities. the science of the greenhouse effect from those gases is pretty straightforward and agreed upon by almost all scientists.

    it becomes more complicated to predict precisely how much warmer the world will get and how severe sea water rise and other effects will be.

    and it probably becomes even more political and debatable how much of a priority should be given to reducing greenhouse gas emissions vs other pressing priorities facing the world such unequal distribution of wealth.

  17. Francisco July 9th, 2009 5:31 am

    It is fact that that CO2 in the atmosphere has risen. It is also a fact that many glaciers are suffering significant net melting. Sea level hs been rising slightly but measurably in the Australian Pacific.
    Dont say that it is not a lot colder or warmer at the place you grew up, because scientists are not claiming that either. Some predictions are for decades and centuries to see a few degrees of change, so dont expect for dramatic changes next season.
    It is also true that weather patterns fluctuate naturally, but that is no reason to deny that climate may not be taking a definite but slow turn.
    Dont vilify Al Gore for relying on people with training. Otherwise what are we going to do, consult an oracle?
    Scientists are doing the best they can in an unbiased way. Most are honest and have nothing financial to gain from their work, and a lot to lose if they make unsound science. Thruth is, to do this work even better, scientis probably need a lot more resources ($) than they have.
    What wout you ski equipment look like without science or engineering. Fir planks anyone?
    Further, what would your medical treaments, transportantion etc would be like?

  18. Randonnee July 9th, 2009 11:02 am

    True and good points, Francisco. Questions would include 1) so what does this really mean as far as actual effects 2) what can be done and 3) who will enforce the regulation of worldwide carbon-emissions…or is all of the world just going to point its finger at the US while allowing the largest carbon-emitters to continue growing their economies without regulation of greenhouse gas? From what I read, this GW (per Al Gore) stuff remains uncertain, guesswork, based on computer-modeling, and more politically-focused than scientifically-focused.

    For all of the hot air, even the proponents of so-called change propose things that will have little true effect on the climate, but that will significantly redistribute wealth and revoke personal rights and opportunity. According to the IPCC 2007 Assessment “Both past and future anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will continue to contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium”- it is over, anyway if this GW alarmism holds true. I personally doubt the worst scenarios.

    For the record at one time I admired Al Gore. Now he sells this GW stuff and is becoming fabulously personally wealthy from it, while he jet-sets around the world and lives in a huge home.

    As far as ski gear, I try to get what works best. Much like telemark ski gear this whole GW thing requires fanaticism and faith in order to believe in it… : )}

  19. Scott July 9th, 2009 11:07 am

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to state or even imply that lay people cannot develop or have credible opinions on scientific subjects. I hate to pick on Dostie, but his comment about 1% energy expenditure is a good example of just how ill-informed many who want to weigh in on the debate are.

    To make matters worse in this case, the public information that is available is potentially so skewed by the political battle between the major proponents and opponents of GW theories, that I don’t beleive the lay person has the ability to wade through the BS. I think that is what Randonee is saying, and I agree with him on that point, but I don’t see how this can lead to the conclusion that GW is not real and/or undesirable.

    The whole thing reminds me of all of the scientific debate about the health effects of smoking.

  20. Randonnee July 9th, 2009 11:39 am

    Thanks, Scott. Must disagree about the smoking v GW. What real health effects are now widespread from GW? As far as smoking, and lately Boomers who long smoked marijuana, if you smoke you WILL get cardiovascular disease and likely lung disease. One may be fat, eat poorly, etc. and may or may not get cardiovascular disease. If one smokes they WILL get cardiovascular dz, based on my education and strongly from my observations that I make in my Profession.

    To make scientific observation, one must follow the data and draw conclusions. The data is incomplete to draw the alarmist conclusions of GW at this time.

  21. Jules July 10th, 2009 3:33 am

    Inneresting. Here in Oz we get it every few years (there is a whole, red, continent to the west of our snow areas). In really big dust years we export our snirt dirt to New Zealand and make their mountains pink. I’m not sure they are that glad for it.

  22. Kidd July 10th, 2009 9:33 am

    The amount of desert that has been disturbed by the mining industry, mainly with access roads has to be part of the equation. There are literally thousands of miles of new roads built to access oil and gas units west of the San Juans.

  23. Scott July 10th, 2009 10:16 am


    I was thinking it was similar to smoking in that we have industries with entrenched interests and deep pockets driving a lot of the discussion and muddying the waters, which makes it very difficult to think of this as a purely scientific question.

    There are big differences, though; In this case there are some who hope to profit through GW as well as those who are protecting their current profits.

  24. Feldy July 10th, 2009 9:29 pm

    I saw a presentation by Nate Lewis at a couple of solar energy conferences back in 2004-05. He had very reasonable view of global warming. You can look at the presentations here

    The salient points IMO:
    1) Data from the Vostok ice core ( shows CO2 and mean global temperature tracking one another throughout history. Whether it’s causation (e.g. more CO2 causes more Temp or more Temp causes more CO2) or even just correlation (something else governs both) is unclear.
    2) Right now there’s more CO2 in the atmosphere than ever before (at least from the timeframe of that data)
    3) If we’d like to buy insurance against potentially doing the biggest experiment the world has even known (i.e. seeing if adding CO2 will heat up planet significantly), we might want to think about a way to cut down on CO2 emissions.

    Seems like a reasonable way to look at it regardless if you believe Al Gore invented the internets or not. ;-D

    On a side note, I’ll announce to the world that with a recent purchase of a pair of Zzuesesess, I’ve committed myself to no longer be a full-time BC telewhacker, (thought I’d bring something back to skiing)

  25. Lou July 11th, 2009 6:52 am

    Feldy, well, since you’ve come over to the bright side of skiing we’ll have to go easy on you!

    Some OpEd from me:

    Regarding GW, let me repeat that just about everyone (including me) seems to agree there is global warming. No one here needs to spend time trying to prove it exists. As for how much of that is caused by C02, it appears there is much uncertainty about that in the scientific community.

    As for what to do about it, we have to remember that preemptive caution is a temptation when it results in things you strongly believe are right. For example, I hear people say all the time that “even if a carbon tax doesn’t reduce global warming, at least it’ll force us on to the ‘right’ path” and keep us out of any possible trouble.” I’m a skeptic of any preemptive caution based stuff, especially when it results in ever more government control and regulation. Shoot, the Iraq war was in many ways based on preemptive caution, was it not?

    In the case of global warming, the U.S. is already on track to being beat at the CO2 production game by China, and the rest of the developing world would like nothing better than to be dumping out C02 as fast as we are. And sure, we produce more CO2 percapita than other countries, but at least part of that is because we grow food and manufacture goods that the rest of the world seems to want and enjoy. I wonder how much C02 we’d produce if we eliminated all food and goods exports and associated production? That would be an interesting set of numbers…

    There is a proven solution to C02 belching power generation. It’s used by France and Japan. As gas prices inevitably rise, if we converted all our electric production to hydro and nuke, with some wind and solar mixed in, the inevitable use of smaller cars and increase in electric car use would take care of any additional reduction in C02 that remained. That’s my solution, anyway (grin).

    Lastly, I’m hearing lately that if we institute the heavy duty government controls on carbon, that’ll somehow make our country a “leader.” This from the same people who tell me that the U.S. is reviled and even hated by the rest of the world. So, we’re going to pass some gov regs and suddenly the rest of the world is going to think we’re the cat’s meow? That would seem to be a good example of wishful thinking.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for alternative energy and caring for our environment. I just think the GW boogyman has to be reined in and not used as an excuse for all sorts of whacked out stuff that really doesn’t help, and may hurt us. As I mentioned above, there are incredibly effective solutions that are already in use, with proven technology. In my opinion we should get on the case with that stuff.

  26. Randonnee July 11th, 2009 7:23 am

    Good words, Lou. Very appropriate to discuss the political aspects that dominate this topic and agendas. We also produce the dominant military power since WWII that is reviled by some but nonetheless has provided security for Europe, Canada, Japan, etc. and allowed them to spend less on military needs and grow their economies. The US helped in a large way to give the freedom for some of those folks to mock us. It would be an unusual grasp of reality if those in other parts of the world who like to criticize the US and mock our consumption would consider the freedom and opportunity provided by the US.

  27. Lou July 11th, 2009 7:34 am

    Yeah, spicing things up with a bit of politics is ok here on certain posts that go that direction, but we’ve got to watch it. I’ll turn comments off immediately if the discussion devolves. And as always, will delete any posts that are personal attacks or unpleasant spew.

  28. Mike July 11th, 2009 10:19 am

    The politics to me seems to be on the “no problem” side of the issue. real science is apolitical. A good take on the motivations of the parties involved was from Jason Fox’s end of the season recap on his “Single Chair Weather Blog”. ( a great resource for the EC cowd BTW)

  29. Slave to Turns July 11th, 2009 10:35 am

    Randonee :We also produce the dominant military power since WWII that is reviled by some but nonetheless has provided security for Europe, Canada, Japan, etc. and allowed them to spend less on military needs and grow their economies

    The US does not provide security, nor has it, for Canada.


  30. Scott July 11th, 2009 11:19 am

    @Slave to Turns

    The US does provide international (not internal) for much of the world and especially Canada. Canada may contribute something of itself, but this would be wholly inadequate without the US prescence.

  31. Slave to Turns July 11th, 2009 11:55 am


    Thanks for the American perspective.

    Besides the UN Peacekeepers, we do not have military operations anywhere in the world other than Iraq and mainly Afghanistan, which last I checked, was in support of American operations. Having a big sword rattling neighbor like yourselves does not make anyone feel “secure”, BTW.

  32. Randonnee July 11th, 2009 11:57 am

    Mr Slave to Turns, Canada is strong, no intention to slight, just pointing out the the US contribution to the world and the west includes a lot of good, not just carbon pollution and other bad stuff.

    Canada has stepped up historically- vigorously and notably- to fight for freedom. My readings of history cause me to admire Canadians for their military contributions and huge sacrifices for freedom. Man, the Canadians suffered heroically at Dieppe in order to probe the Atlantic Wall before D Day in WWII. The military unit called “The Black Devils” in WWII combined Canadian and US soldiers in mountain and commando training in Montana. The Canadian/ American First Special Service Force was the WWII era forerunner of Special Forces and herocially suffered in taking important objectives in the mountains of Italy in WWII.. There is a movie “The Devil’s Brigade” about this Unit that is entertaining and a great book “A Perfect Hell” by John Nadler.

    There is the history of that Cold War thing and DEW line and MAD where the US and allies stood off (apparently) the other side. US did have a rather large investment and resultant ‘carbon production’ in maintaining freedom.

  33. Slave to Turns July 11th, 2009 12:05 pm


    Thanks for the recommendation on Nadler’s book-looks entertaining!

  34. Randonnee July 11th, 2009 1:28 pm

    You are welcome. The movie “The Devil’s Brigade” is fairly entertaining as well. It shows the professional and tough Canadian soldiers and the big braggart US volunteer soldiers first brawling then becoming devoted comrades-in-arms accomplishing tough objectives on la Defensa in Italy.

  35. Randonnee July 11th, 2009 7:06 pm

    Mike good points in your post and the blogpost. Science often seems muddled in the popular media and society by politics.Science should be discussed in the mainstream when some “science” driven agendas evolve that affect ordinary citizens. Actually I know quite a few “scientists” in various fields and find some who have the logical basis and maturity to separate politics from science. “Scientists” are human, however, and I have encountered and read commentary from many who maintain less objectivity in regard to scientific issues that become important politically. Some folks can focus and produce brilliant thought about a certain area but lack a broader view in regard to socio-political implications. Agreed, science and politics are separate, therefore when scientific theory is used or misused for the purpose of allocating individual rights and liberty and in the allocating of resources then the science has been left far behind- it has become pure politics.

  36. Brandt Swanke July 12th, 2009 9:19 am

    I spent most of this past week at an oil & gas industry function in Denver. The honorable Tim Wirth, after castigating the industry for not supporting Waxman Markey (Cap & Trade) in an organized manner, was told that “we” don’t necessarily accept the science as being absolute, as he and the Al Gore crowd present it. His response was that the scientific debate is OVER, that there was NO credible dispute. When I hear politicians make these type of statements, regardless of my knowledge of the issue, I smell a rat, and tend to resist the path they are prescribing.

  37. Lou July 12th, 2009 2:07 pm

    Good info Brandt. Indeed, the all knowing omniscient politician… how quickly we forget all the messes they’ve gotten us in!

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