Surveyors measure the snow during the snowpack season. Courtesy of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
A groundbreaking study reveals that pollution from automobiles and coal-fired power plants is contributing to the melting of mountain snowpacks as much as a month early, thereby exacerbating water shortages and other problems across the parched western United States.
The study, conducted by researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is the first to explore changes to snowmelt caused by soot pollution at a regional level. The study found that soot -- tiny particles emitted from automobile tailpipes and industry smokestacks -- eventually settles on the snow-topped mountains, powdering them with a dark layer that absorbs more sunlight and melts the snow weeks earlier.
More alarming than early melting, however, are the effects to water supply, particularly in the summer months, when it is needed most.
The consequences are enormous, researchers say, and affect everything from agricultural irrigation to recreational activities to the generation of hydroelectric power. Already, local governments and large power companies are spending tens of millions of dollars a year on artificial cloud-seeding projects designed to increase snowpack. And a number of Western states are involved in costly legal battles over access to water supplies that are dwindling, in part, due to the early snowmelt.