SE4:EP10 - Dr. McKenzie Skiles: Science of Snowmelt
Play • 34 min

As skiers and riders, we hate to think of melting snow. But to Dr. McKenzie Skiles, snow melt is the lifeblood of existence in the mountain west. Last Chair ventured up Little Cottonwood Canyon to join Dr. Skiles in a three-meter deep snow pit to talk about snow melt, the impact of desert dust and what the future holds in store.

An Alaskan native who started skiing when she was two, Skiles had a long fascination with snow. She chose the University of Utah for college because of the snow-covered Wasatch. And when she learned there was a course of study in snow hydrology, she was hooked. She also discovered the Utah backcountry, bought a split board, and ultimately decided this was the place to stay.

Today, as an assistant professor in the U’s Geography Department, her passion is the study of snow – its water content, factors that influence the actual melt and how that water makes it’s way through creeks and rivers down to life-giving reservoirs. 

Her research facility is a short skin up the lower flanks of Cardiff Peak across from Alta to the Atwater Study Plot, named for Monty Atwater, the father of avalanche safety. The study area is cordoned off from passing skiers and snow shoers to preserve the natural snowfall. A meteorological tower contains an array of instruments. And measuring devices in the snow weigh the snow pillow to gauge water content.

Once a week or more, Skiles and student assistants head up the trail to dig a snow pit, taking a variety of measurements of snow cores and evaluating dark layers of dust in the snow white walls. The information is carefully analyzed on site and back at their University of Utah lab.

The thought of melting snow is something we all hope is many months out. But this episode of Last Chair provides some fascinating insights into how our snowfall turns into water and fuels our lives here in the mountain west. Here’s a sampling of the interview. Listen in to Last Chair to learn more. <<LINK TO PODCAST>>

McKenzie, what is the Atwater Study Plot?

Atwater is a snow energy balance study plot where we are measuring how the snow accumulates and how it melts out and what is controlling the rates of those processes.

What do you do as a snow hydrologist?

I am really interested in snow after it falls to the ground and I want to be able to assess how much water is held to snow in the mountains. And, very importantly, when that is going to be available as water downstream. So when and how fast will that snow melt? And that's really critical here in Utah and over the whole Western us, because up to 80% of our surface water comes from snow annually. So it's a really critical component of the water cycle in the west.

How did you get into the field?

I was interested in studying climate and the impacts of climate on snow cover in particular. But I didn't really know that snow hydrology and studying snow was a career path you could have until I went to school at the University of Utah. My graduate advisor who was a snow hydrologist, and as soon as I figured out that was a job you could have, I didn't really ever look back.

How do you evaluate the particulates on the snow?

Actually you can see a dust layer in this snow pit, it's pretty varied. So we're weighing the total amount of dust that's in the snow pack. We get multiple dust events through the winter and then they get buried by snowfall. And so there are these individual dark layers within the snow pit. So we can track those individual dust layers, but then they don't get carried away in the meltwater they combine at the surface as snow melts. And that is a compounding effect where each layer sort of comes to the surface, the surface just gets darker and darker, accelerating absorption of sunlight and snow melt.

What’s a good melting pattern in the spring?

The ideal scenario is that as days get longer and sunlight gets more intense in the spring and into the summer, that we get a gradual melt. We want snow to come out slowly. And what that allows us to do is to capture it downstream. It allows it to infiltrate into the soils and it avoids flooding. And if you have some sort of event like a big dust deposition event or sort of multiple really warm days in a row or something like a rain on snow event, you can have really rapid melt. And when you get really rapid melt, it can lead to flooding downstream – so too much of a good thing at once.

Are others working in unison with you?

There are very talented and dedicated scientists that work here in Utah looking at this issue spanning institutions: Utah State, University of Utah, BYU. It's sort of an all hands on deck situation. The recharge for the Great Salt Lake is coming from the mountains that are right next door. So we have a unique opportunity here to study this, as a system, but then also understand solutions for other areas, because this is not the only place where a saline lake is shrinking and disappearing. So we have the opportunity here to provide solutions not just for us, but for other people in other locations as well.

Dr. McKenzie Skiles has a personal passion for snow, be that split boarding down a backcountry line or spending hours in the field researching snow melt.

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