Roughly one month ago, social media (and, later, more conventional media) outlets were inundated with numerous reports of orange snow in eastern Europe and western Asia – reports like this one, this one and this one. Of course, it wouldn’t really be a hit with the media unless someone could claim it was “apocalyptic”. And of course, the apocalypse didn’t happen. It was simply Saharan dust picked up by high winds from an intense mid-latitude cyclone and deposited far away. We’ve seen this before with VIIRS.
These reports focused on Sochi, Russia, home of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, every time I looked for it in VIIRS imagery, it was cloudy in Sochi. But, the plume of Saharan dust that caused this event was clearly visible over the Mediterranean:
This image came from our new NOAA-20 VIIRS, which, at this point, is not operational and undergoing additional testing. If you look closer, you might also notice smoke or smog over Poland in the image above (upper left corner). If you really zoom in (click on the image to get to the full resolution version), you may notice a brownish tint to the snow along the north shore of the Black Sea – where the BBC report I linked to listed additional sightings of orange snow. But, the dust-covered snow shows up more clearly in this “before and after” image courtesy of S-NPP VIIRS and the @NOAASatellites twitter account:
(As an aside: differences in technique used to produce these true color images are likely larger than the differences between S-NPP VIIRS and NOAA-20 VIIRS, so don’t read too much into the fact that the dust-on-snow appears more clearly in the @NOAASatellites image than in my own.)
But, dust-on-snow is not limited to areas within a few thousand kilometers of the Sahara Desert. (It is limited to areas within 40,000 km of the Sahara [in the horizontal dimension, at least], since that is roughly the circumference of the Earth – and assuming you ignore dust storms on Mars.) Dust on snow can happen anywhere you have snow within striking distance of a source of dust. Another example was captured by a new Landsat-like micro-satellite, Venµs, and its non-microsat predecessor, Sentinel-2B, Landsat’s European cousin. A more dramatic example happened last week right here in Colorado. Here is a VIIRS true color image of Colorado from S-NPP VIIRS, taken on 14 April 2018:
Here are similar images from NOAA-20 and S-NPP from 18 April 2018:
The trick is to compare these two images with the image from 14 April. The other trick is to know where you’re supposed to be looking. (Hint: we’re looking at the Sangre de Cristo mountains in southern Colorado.) Here’s a “before” and “after” image overlay trick I’ve used before. (You may have to refresh the page before it will work.) Both of these images are the S-NPP VIIRS ones, for simplicity:
If you slide the bar left to right, you should notice the snow is more brown in the mountains just right of center in the 18 April image. There are other areas where the snow melted between the two images, plus a couple of small clouds that add to the differences. Of course, this is only 750 m resolution. We get a better view with the 375m-resolution visible channel, I-1:
We lose the color information, of course, since we are looking at a single channel, but it is obvious the snow became less reflective in the 18 April image. And, we can prove that this was a result of dust. Here are the visible, true color, Dust RGB, “Blue Light Dust” and DEBRA Dust images from S-NPP on 17 April 2018, courtesy Steve M.:
If you are unfamiliar with them, we’ve looked at the Dust RGB, Blue Light Dust and DEBRA before, here and here. As seen in the above images, this was not a difficult to detect dust case. Even Landsat-8 captured this event, which is surprising given the narrow swath and 16-day orbit repeat cycle. (Sure, it’s higher resolution than VIIRS, but will it be overhead when you need it?)
So now we get to why dust-on-snow is important. There is a growing body of research (e.g. this paper) that shows dust-on-snow has a big impact on water resources in places like the Rocky Mountains. You see, dirty snow is less reflective than clean snow. That means it absorbs more solar radiation. This, in turn, means it heats up and melts faster, leading to earlier spring run-off. The end result is less water later in the season, which opens the door to wildfires and more severe droughts. This article that, coincidentally, was published as I was writing this, sums things up nicely. It is so important, the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies has formed CODOS: the Colorado Dust on Snow Program, whose purpose is to monitor dust on snow and provide weekly updates.
As for why you shouldn’t eat orange snow, that should be obvious. You shouldn’t eat any snow that isn’t pure white (and even that might be risky). But, feel free to eat colorful ice, as long as you know where it came from.