How Snow becomes a River

December 14, 2018
Sam Watson on his off Season

Water Is Life—Really

Grass in waterWater Is Life. This phrase was recently popularized by the water protectors at Standing Rock. But its roots are much older than that. Those who resisted water privatization in Bolivia during the tumultuous “Water Wars” used the same slogan. Indeed, for thousands of years, people who’ve relied on the falling, flowing, and gurgling of water have known that water is life and have lived accordingly.

Unfortunately, water has been dismissed and degraded again and again in recent years: the rivers polluted, aquifers drained, and oceans made into garbage dumps. Sure, modern science has told us that water is the basis of life, but often we fail to understand that it’s more than that: Water Is Life.

As Native American Biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “Often science dismisses indigenous knowledge as folklore — not objective or empirical, and thus not valid. But indigenous knowledge, too, is based on observation, on experiment. The difference is that it includes spiritual relationships and spiritual explanations.”

Relatively recent revelations about how snowfall and snowpack affects every living thing on the planet is just another example of how disruptions in the water cycle equal disruptions in the life cycle, and how science is often playing catch up to indigenous knowledge that has guided people for millennia.



The Albedo Effect

On Top of the World Eric Balken

Photo Credit: Eric Balken

Have you ever accidentally worn a black t-shirt on a hot summer’s day while working in the garden? If so, you will know from first hand experience how dark colored surfaces have “low albedo.”

The term albedo means the ability of surfaces to reflect sunlight. High albedo surfaces reflect a lot of the sun’s light, and heat, back up into the atmosphere. Low albedo surfaces do not, and so they tend to act like gigantic heating pads for the planet.

If you’ve been skiing or snowboarding before, or even on a wintry hike, then you probably know that if the sun is out you need to wear sunglasses and sunscreen. The threat is not from that ball of light in the sky; it’s from the snow below. Snow is so high albedo that it acts like a mirror for the sun.

Compare that to the black asphalt of a parking lot or the dark brown tiles on your roof, and you might start to understand how much we as a species have altered the albedo of the earth. This large scale engineering—removing natural, high albedo landscapes and replacing them in low albedo ones— has played directly into a vicious cycle of climate change that was already well on its way.



The Cycle of Warming

Cracked Mud San JuanOne of the biggest problems caused by a warming planet is the melting of the polar ice caps. You’ve probably seen the pictures of the polar bears losing their habitats and the renderings of Manhattan underwater from sea level rise. Maybe you’ve heard about the huge release of methane that will result from the arctic tundra if the earth warms too much. But one of the least discussed problems associated with the ice caps melting is the loss of their high albedo.

Snow and ice cover 17-18 million square miles of the earth’s surface. All this snow acts like a reflective blanket both ways, keeping the heat down in the soil below, and reflecting heat back into the atmosphere. When that white surface of the earth is replaced by, let’s say, brown soil, it redistributes the heat in all of the wrong ways. The atmosphere heats and the snow melts earlier and faster, fueling the cycle even more.



The Greatest Snow(melts) on Earth

Guides with US Ski Team

Holiday guides Josh, Jack, & Justin working their offseason job with the US Ski Team

The guides at Holiday know all too well how changes in snowpack can alter conditions all the way downstream. In fact, many of them see both sides of the cycle firsthand. When they get done river guiding in the fall, they head up to the Wasatch mountains to work at the ski resorts through the winter. They know that when the skiing conditions on less than optimal, the river conditions probably won’t be ideal, either.

But it’s not just the amount of snow that falls in a given year that affects the flow of the rivers. It’s how that snowfalls, and how it melts.  

Some University of Utah professors presented a paper at the 2017 Western Snow Conference that outlines how changes in winter precipitation (less snow, more rain) and snowmelt (which is accelerated by changes in albedo), have led to lower ‘water yields’ downstream. This affects residents in Utah who depend on that water for drinking and agriculture, but also affects the 11 million other people who depend on the Colorado River System (not to mention the millions of animals and plants).

Another recent paper makes the story even bleaker. In it, the authors look at how dust from the drying up Great Salt Lake is settling on top of the snow in the Wasatch Mountains, and therefore increasing its albedo. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, the death of the lake that made Utah’s snow so great in the first place might lead to the death of the ski industry all together.

In short: when you mess with water at one point in the cycle, you mess with it at every point in the cycle.



Water Is Life—Really Really

churning rapidThe science is just now catching up to the sacred knowledge that many people have held for millennia. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that such knowledge is relatively simple. Water is life.

We don’t need to create fancy new gadgets or figure out how to block out the sun. We just have to treat the water, the air, and the whole earth like its livelihood is inextricably linked to our own. Because it is.

Sure, it might take giving up a few things we love, like fossil fuels and unlimited capitalist development, but let me ask you this: which do you love more, fresh powder or your morning commute? A trip down Cataract Canyon, or a little bump in the stock market?




Writer Easton SmithEaston Smith is a Local Wasatch Front resident and writer.   He spends his time community organizing, rock-climbing, and playin’ some mean banjo.