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Colorado's Storm Peak Lab: Science in the snow

Story Highlights

• Major focus of lab is climate change
• In winter the lab is often enveloped in clouds
• Researchers can live and study at the mountaintop facility
By Marsha Walton
CNN
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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colorado (CNN) -- Up the mountain from the Steamboat Springs Ski Resort, atmospheric scientists have studied everything from snow crystals and pollution to the impact of ultraviolet radiation on vegetation.

Scientists at the Storm Peak Laboratory have conducted research here since 1981. Currently, climate change tops their priorities.

The findings made at Storm Peak could be important to how the ski industry adjusts to warming temperatures.

"With a warmer climate, you will have a shorter ski season," said lab director Dr. Gannet Hallar. "You'll have an earlier melt and a later onset of snow. This makes a lot of difference for the skiing community,"she said.

But less snow has an impact far beyond vacationing skiers and snowboarders, Hallar and the other researchers stressed.

"Water is a major issue in Colorado," said Hallar. "Our water serves Las Vegas and Los Angeles. So less snow in Colorado influences water across the nation."

The lab has determined that an increase in sulfate pollution from power plants reduces snowfall by about 15 percent.

"Unfortunately, the models seem to be in agreement that the amount of snow is going to go down," said University of Colorado climatologist Dr. Jim White.

"Some models as much as 50 percent by the year 2050 or so," he said.

Location, location, location

In its first few years, the lab was housed in a small, chilly trailer. The current structure, built in the summer of 1995, is a 1500-square-foot work and living space, with bunks for up to nine researchers at a time.

Scientists and graduate students from across the United States, Europe and Canada -- even one from Timbuktu, Mali, have moved in for short-term research projects.

The lab is operated by the Desert Research Institute, a branch of the University of Nevada.

The Steamboat area currently gets an annual snowfall ranging from 157 inches to 354 inches, and some of it gets scientific scrutiny from lab researchers.

For example, they have determined that different shapes of snowflakes melt into different amounts of water. That knowledge could help with long-term predictions.

Dr. Ward Hindman, now professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at The City College of New York, helped establish the lab in 1981.

He still conducts research there, and has brought many students to conduct field research. The value of this lab: location, location, location.

"It's expensive to study inside clouds," said Hindman, since that often involves airplanes.

But the Storm Peak Lab, he said, is in the clouds 25 percent of the time in the winter, which enables scientists to conduct and change experiments for longer periods of time.

"We have 23 years of records, so it's quite valuable to see how the clouds are changing," said Hindman.

Roughing it

The Rocky Mountain facility has most of the necessities of a modern lab, from high-speed Internet to DISH satellite TV. It is on the Steamboat Springs electrical grid and also has some solar panels. Residents are looking for ways to increase the use of renewable energy sources.

"We use a lot of energy for living and instrumentation," said Hallar.

But the lab is missing a few basics. Like running water. Residents must melt snow for cooking, drinking and showering.

"It really makes you become aware of how much water you use," said Hallar, who became director last October.

And then there is the toilet. Even its name is scary. The "combustion toilet" uses electricity to incinerate waste.

The lab sits on an acre of U.S. Forest Service land and must get special permits for just about all its activities.

"They are providing a public benefit, for scientists and other people," said Steamboat Springs Forest Service snow ranger Janet Faller.

And she says the information collected at the lab has benefited her agency as well. The Forest Service has a camera, mounted outside the lab, that has taken photos for many years in order to monitor air quality and visibility.

Because the lab is both a working and living space, daily tasks are assigned to keep the workspace running smoothly. Residents have chores ranging from cooking dinner, washing dishes, emptying those pesky toilet ashes, to preparing a detailed daily weather forecast.

From digging out buried snowmobiles to jury-rigging cranky equipment, the day-to-day challenges are not always solved by looking in a manual.

"You learn it as you do it, " said Hallar.

There's a symbiotic relationship between the lab and the Steamboat Springs Ski Resort.

While working at the lab, its residents get free ski lift passes. And from its seven meteorological stations across the mountain, the lab provides temperature, wind and humidity data, which helps the resort with its artificial snowmaking.

Weather information is also reported to the Western Region Climate Center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.


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The Storm Peak Lab sits atop Mt. Werner. Annual snowfall averages between 157 inches and 354 inches.

Storm Peak Challenges

Scientists doing field work nearly always encounter surprises. At the Storm Peak Laboratory high atop Mt. Werner some of those challenges have included:

  • Repairing wiring chewed through by porcupines

  • Thawing out frozen equipment with hair dryers

  • Getting lost on a snowmobile in a whiteout trying to get back to the mountaintop lab
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