Research scientist and site manager Ian McCubbin, left, and Daniel Obrist, an associate professor at the Desert Research Center, stand outside the Storm Peak Laboratory near the top of the Morningside at Steamboat Ski Area in April 2012. The lab is a research center that integrates research and education by advancing the discovery and understanding within the field of aerosol and cloud interactions.

John F. Russell/file

Research scientist and site manager Ian McCubbin, left, and Daniel Obrist, an associate professor at the Desert Research Center, stand outside the Storm Peak Laboratory near the top of the Morningside at Steamboat Ski Area in April 2012. The lab is a research center that integrates research and education by advancing the discovery and understanding within the field of aerosol and cloud interactions.

Bigger, better-equipped Storm Peak Lab delves deeper into cloud science in mountains above Steamboat

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Storm Peak Laboratory

The Storm Peak Laboratory is a research center that integrates research and education by advancing the discovery and understanding within the field of aerosol and cloud interactions.

— Climate researchers at Storm Peak Laboratory atop Steamboat Ski Area say it’s possible that increasing amounts of particulate pollution in clouds over the mountains here could be shifting thousands of acre-feet of water in the form of snowfall out of the Colorado River Basin to the North Platte drainage and the eastern side of the Continental Divide.

“It would take at least a five-year study to confirm it, but that’s what our models and atmospheric measurements are suggesting,” research scientist and Storm Peak Lab site manager Ian McCubbin said Thursday.

Scientists at the lab are learning that an increasing presence of particulates referred to as aerosols causes less-dense snowflakes, and the result can be that some of the moisture that might have fallen on one mountain tends to fall one mountain further away.

McCubbin added that he soon will begin pursuing grants that could support that research project. If the theory was confirmed, the implications for climate change shifting water from the Pacific to the Atlantic basin potentially could furrow the brows of water managers stretching from the Rocky Mountains across the Colorado Plateau. Water districts, agriculturalists, municipalities and state governments in the Colorado River Basin already are seeking ways to stretch a finite supply of water in an era of increasing human demand.

But the theory won’t be easy to test.

“It’s a great hypothesis, but it would be very difficult to track the water down the rivers, and if it’s happening, it’s been happening for many years,” scientist Randy Borys said about the possibility that atmospheric particles could be shifting precipitation from one mountain basin to another. Borys is the retired founder of Storm Peak Lab.

McCubbin and his colleagues hosted a public forum Thursday attended by about 60 people at the Bud Werner Memorial Library to celebrate the recent expansion of the lab, which sits in the Routt National Forest atop Steamboat Ski Area. It is operated by the Desert Research Institute, a branch of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Gannet Hallar, director of the lab, thanked Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. for facilitating the lab for 22 years. She also recognized a dozen local building contractors for their work on the expansion, which doubled the size of the lab.

The expansion allows space for the first time for an on-site chemistry lab, Hallar said, which makes research at the remote lab much more practical. There’s also room for creature comforts for the scientists who typically live in the lab for seven to 10 days at a time.

Hallar said what makes the Storm Peak Lab special, one of only a few like it in the world, is that it provides the ability to study cloud science from within the clouds.

“The normal way to study clouds is with an aircraft,” Hallar said. “Having a place where you can sit down and study clouds without having to move through them is a real bonus.”

Among the characteristics of clouds that scientists at the lab are studying are aerosols (tiny suspended particles) and the interaction of the particles with cloud droplets.

“The biggest question of all is how aerosols affect the atmosphere,” Hallar said. “Some absorb heat, and some reflect it. So we have to understand the color of particles (dark or light) and whether they take up water in the form of cloud droplets. We’re really focused on the direct and indirect effects of aerosol.”

The cloud scientists know that the increasing density of particles in the air leads to smaller cloud droplets, and Borys, Hallar said, is credited with discovering that the smaller droplets react differently with snowflakes. Larger droplets are apt to attach to snowflakes as super-cooled water, Hallar said. And Borys found that as droplets become smaller, it is easier for them to deflect around the dendrites of snowflakes without attaching. That means less water content in every snowflake.

“You’ll have a more pristine snowflake and less water out of a snowstorm,” Hallar said. “Smaller cloud droplets decrease precipitation. It’s a huge impact on your snow in terms of water content.”

So where does the moisture that doesn’t attach to a snowflake forming above Storm Peak wind up? It still falls from the sky, and as it turns out, not far away. But in the case of the Park Range, if it falls on the east side of the Continental Divide, it’s heading for a different ocean.

But even if particulate pollution is causing some of the annual snowfall on the Park Range to fall a little further to the east, there’s still ample snow most winters as McCubbin observed. During the memorable winter of of 2010-11, the Storm Peak Lab was in the clouds more than 70 percent of the time, he said. And the scientists observed that from Dec. 1 through the end of February, there were 63 days with measurable snow and 32 when 6 inches or more fell.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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