Brown snow and eager tomatoes

The other day we drove home over the mountains from Denver, knowing from the weather forecast and road report that we were headed into high-wind conditions going across South Park, the shallow bowl of mountain grassland that lies at around 9,500 feet elevation (give or take a few hundred feet) between our valley and the Great Plains. (Yes, the very South Park that inspired the television show.)

Wind is normal in this largely treeless mountain basin surrounded by higher peaks. In winter, it blows the snow into huge drifts and coats the road with ice. We could have waited out the weather, but we were eager to be home. So we bucked the gusts up through the foothills and over Kenosha Pass into the north end of South Park. The wind was fierce, but the sun had clearly been out, because the pavement was still warm enough to be wet, not icy. (The air temperature was a brry 21 degrees F.)


The driving wasn’t bad until after the little town of Fairplay (the name is a reference to claim-jumping and gambling back in the silver and gold mining days of the late 1800s), when snow showers closed in and streams of white stuff started blowing across the road as in the photo above. About then we noticed something funny in the snow drifts along the highway. The normally pristine white snow was tinted rosy brown. The color was deeper on the lee side of the drifts and paler in the wind-scoured areas. (Notice the pattern on the drift in the photo below–the lee side of the drift is the dark slope.)

Looking at the weirdly colored snow, I remembered waking before dawn to the tapping of sleet on our motel balcony and later being surprised to see our Subaru splattered with brown, as if it had rained dirt. Oh. My mind linked the two observations and I realized the rosy brown snow and the dirt rain in Denver were part of the same event: a region-wide spring dust storm. These storms have become more common as the Desert Southwest has warmed in recent years. High winds roar across the desert of the Four Corners region and around Las Vegas, Nevada, in early spring and pick up the dry reddish soil, exposed by a combination of persistent drought, overgrazing, vehicle erosion, and blading for massive new developments. The winds carry the clouds of soil long distances north and east until precipitation, either snow or rain, pelts the dust to the ground. 

These storms have scary implications for regional water supplies. The dust layer darkens the snow surface, causing it to accumulate more solar heat and thus melt more quickly. Dust-storms on Easter weekend of 2009 painted whole mountainsides reddish brown, accelerating snowpack melting by as much as two weeks, meaning rivers and streams peaked sooner and dried out more quickly, which left water-users in a region where every drop of water is allocated to some use or other scrambling for the vital liquid by the end of summer. Early snowmelt means soils dry out sooner too, which leaves landscapes droughty and more susceptible to erosion when the spring winds come up, which means dust events are more likely, coating mountain snowpacks with brown layers…. It’s a self-feeding cycle that can just get worse and worse. (Here’s a great article on the
phenomenon and its implications by Michelle Nijhuis in High
Country News. If that one isn’t accessible without a password, try this
from the Gunnison Country Times.)

As we drove past the brown drifts in South Park the other day, I shivered. Not from cold, from worry about how we’re treating this amazing planet, the watery blue and vibrant green globe that Buckminster Fuller called “Spaceship Earth” because it hurtles through space carrying its breathing cargo of lives, us included. It’s our home. In fact, as I’ve said before, it’s the only home our species has ever known. It’s time to take that seriously and do a better job of being good planetary citizens before we get voted off….

I’ve thought about the brown snow since we got home, and didn’t want to write about it. It’s a problem that raises difficult issues–too many humans living in a region that has always been too dry to support big populations of any species, for one. There’s no easy answer, no cheery way to sum it up. I have enough difficult issues in my life right now and some days I struggle to keep my own spirits up. Why borrow trouble? as a friend of mine used to ask whenever I brought up big things.

Because life’s not all wildflowers and bluebirds singing and sunny days. Better that we face what we’ve got than pretend it’s not there. I guess those rosy brown snowdrifts are my call to dig deeper in my writing and ask hard questions–ones I can’t necessarily answer, but which need to be raised. Maybe I’ll write an op-ed for Writers on the Range, a syndicate I contribute to now and then, on brown snow and what I read in that dusty tint. It’s not a pretty story, but I’m afraid it’s one we need to hear–again and again until we are moved.


I can’t end this with brown snow, because my tomato seedlings have something to say, too. There they are in the photo above shot this afternoon, all nine varieties, looking eager. (Thank you, Renee Shepherd, of Renee’s Garden Seeds!) But they’re not going out into the garden yet. It’s only the second week in April, and our last average frost date here at 7,000 feet elevation is Mother’s Day. So they have a few weeks inside. I’ll transplant the biggest of them to larger pots this weekend, and that’ll keep them happy until we plant ours out in the garden in insulating walls-o-water. (We only need ten plants; all the others will go to friends, many of whom reserve their plants weeks in advance!) After their first night outside, those tomato plants will be wondering why they ever yearned to move from their sun-warmed paradise inside to the real world. But they’ll get over their initial sulking. They’ll grow tall and strong and revel in the kiss of sun and the buzz-pollination of bumblebees and the heaviness of sweet, ripe fruit. As will we.