A few flakes start to fall in the early morning. As everyone else looks up to evaluate ski conditions, Dr. Randy Borys sees something more. He measures each flake for size and weight. He examines the composition. He sees the weather pattern from which they were created and imagines the particles the parent cloud might have picked up in China, California and Utah.
Unlike Mark Twain's riverboat captain who loses his love for the river once he knows it too well, Borys is one of the rare people whose eyes light up when he talks about his job. Or in Borys' case, his life's work.
"I knew I wanted to be a meteorologist when I was a kid. I was always writing temperatures on the calendar," he said.
He went to school for meteorology and then took a job at the University of Rhode Island working for an atmospherical chemist.
"He studied the atmosphere all over the world," Borys said. "I got to travel to Bermuda, Canada, Arizona, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, Barbados, always looking for pollution in the atmosphere. That really gets your blood flowing."
Borys decided to go back to school at Colorado State University to get his doctorate. For his thesis, he followed his boss to the Arctic to study the effects of pollution over the North Pole and Alaska.
And since then, he has studied the transport of pollution from one side of the planet to the other. For example, in the early 1990s, while working in Hawaii, Borys found pollutants from Kuwaiti oil field fires.
Now, Borys is the director of Storm Peak Laboratory. His office is at 10,525 feet, next to the top of the Steamboat Ski Area's Morningside lift. As skiers make their way toward the chutes and Buddy's Run, atmospherical researchers from all over the world huddle over computer terminals inside the lab, analyzing and measuring everything from bacteria in the air to the level of ultraviolet radiation.
Storm Peak Lab is operated by the University of Nevada Desert Research Institute. It is funded primarily by federal grants and open to anyone with a legitimate research project.
On a clear day, scientists at the lab can see as far as Split Mountain 100 miles away, but the mindset reaches further.
"You have to think globally here," Borys said. Since graduate school, Borys has been studying pollution and its effects on clouds
As the sun heats up the Yampa Valley, Borys watches pollution rise from downtown and up toward his instruments on the top of the mountain.
Every year, Storm Peak Lab invites Routt County eighth-graders to visit the lab. Students are given particle detectors to measure from their schools the changing amount of pollution to their final destination at the laboratory.
"On a day like today (Thursday), there will be 500 particles per cubic centimeter here at the lab, but down at the post office on Third Street there will be a quarter of a million particles per cubic centimeter," Borys said. "In general, it's pretty clean here (in the Yampa Valley), and there hasn't been a large change up or down, which is encouraging if you think in terms of how much development has happened here in the last few years."
The biggest pollutants in the area are sulfates from coal-burning power plants in Utah, Wyoming and Nevada.
"Our pollution is primarily regional, but things change as the winds change," Borys said.
Pollution in a cloud can be measured by looking at the size and density of a snowflake. Researchers at Storm Peak Lab capture melting flakes on film using their homemade Snow Video Spectrometer, a camera that zooms in on a flake.
"Every crystal tells a story," Borys said. Flakes from a clean cloud will have collected more water droplets on the crystal.
"Less water comes out of a polluted cloud than a clean cloud, and that is becoming a big issue across the country. On the coast, 25 percent of the water isn't making it to the ground. Here, it's more like 15 to 20 percent of our snowpack is being lost.
"That's our conclusion. But it's up to lawmakers who are concerned about water supply and air quality to do something about it."
Storm Peak Lab's is on the north/south barrier created by the Park Range. Most storms come from the west, and the Park Range barrier causes new clouds to form.
The lab's high elevation places scientists in the middle of the atmosphere, allowing them to do experiments they previously had to do from an airplane.
Their location next to the lift of a major ski area also gives them access to electricity that would be otherwise impossible to get so far into the mountains.
"In a way, we depend as much on the ski area as we do on our grant funders," Borys said. "Living here is a treat. There are not many mountain top laboratories in the world that are perched right on a peak. This is a world-class facility and even though it is small, people know about it all over the world. The work we do here is applicable globally. It's global and significant."
Storm Peak Laboratory will be featured on CNN in February.
For more information about Storm Peak Laboratory, visit its Web site at stormpeak.dri.edu.
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