Researchers study how pink snow affects snowpack

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

These are snow algae. The University of Montana’s Jim Elser and other researchers are traversing western mountains to find out what nourishes buds and deepens their color. He says that when the algae are darker, they absorb more heat and melt the snow faster – potentially accelerating the melting of snowpack in the mountains.

“If you’re having a cocktail or soft drink or something like that and you have your ice cubes in it, your drink will stay pretty cold as long as there’s a little bit of ice in it,” Elser said. “But as soon as the last piece of ice disappears, your drink will warm up very quickly.”

    Melted snow with snow algae, also known as "glacier blood" in Glacier National Park.

Melted snow with snow algae also known as “glacier blood” in Glacier National Park.

This warming and timing of snowpack runoff has major implications for water supplies, with downstream impacts on everything from wildfires to fish.

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

“We are interested in whether these types of human nitrogen and phosphorus sources make the snow dirtier in one place or another and therefore allow larger blooms of snow algae to grow, which would then lead to faster snowmelt,” Elser said.

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

Elser hopes his team’s findings will contribute to our understanding of how climate change is altering high-altitude ecosystems.

“As soon as we lose the last cube of ice in the high elevations of our mountainous regions, our streams will warm up and it won’t be a linear effect — it will be all at once,” he said.

This story was produced by 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 affiliated stations throughout the region. The Mountain West News Bureau is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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