Friday July 21, 2023

High Country News

High winds tore at Gothic Mountain as the sleeping giant watched over the cabins nestled in Gothic, Colorado, a remote outpost accessible only by skis during the valley’s harsh alpine winters. The plumes of snow that lifted from the peak briefly appeared to form a cloud and then disappeared.

To many, the snow that seemed to vanish into thin air would go unnoticed. But in a region where water availability has slowly begun to diminish, every snowflake counts. Each winter, an unknown percentage of the Rocky Mountain West’s snowpack disappears into the atmosphere, as it was doing on Gothic Mountain, just outside the ski resort town of Crested Butte.  

In the East River watershed, located at the highest reaches of the Colorado River Basin, a group of researchers at Gothic’s Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) are trying to solve the mystery by focusing on a process called sublimation. Snow in the high country sometimes skips the liquid phase entirely, turning straight from a solid into a vapor. The phenomenon is responsible for anywhere between 10% to 90% of snow loss. This margin of error is a major source of uncertainty for the water managers trying to predict how much water will enter the system once the snow begins to melt. 

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