Rise in dust storms spurs environmental fears
Nestled in the San Juan Mountains at 9,300 feet, and surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks, Silverton, Colo., seems an unlikely place for a dust storm, especially with two feet of snow on the ground. So Chris Landry was alarmed on the afternoon of April 3 when he spotted a brown haze on the horizon; an hour later, a howling wind had engulfed the town in a full-fledged dust storm, turning everything from the sky to the snow a rusty red.
"It was almost surreal," recalled Landry, executive director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies. The landscape looked like Mars after the storm passed, he said: "You could feel the dust, you could taste the dust."
The scene Landry witnessed that day was the most severe example of a phenomenon that has overtaken parts of the West this year, one that could exacerbate a slew of environmental problems there in the years to come. The Colorado Rockies, including the headwaters of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande, have experienced 11 serious dust storms this year, a record for the six years researchers have been tracking them.
More important, an increasing amount of airborne dust is blanketing the region, affecting how fast the snowpack melts, when local plants bloom and what quality of air residents are breathing.
The dust storms are a harbinger of a broader phenomenon, researchers say, as global warming translates into less precipitation and a population boom intensifies the activities that are disturbing the dust in the first place. Jayne Belnap, a research ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey who has studied the issue, predicts that by midcentury, the fragility of the region's soil "will be equal to that of the Dust Bowl days."