Where is all the dust coming from?

Wind out of the southwest is carrying dust from Arizona and New Mexico all the way to Steamboat Springs

Dust covers cars parked along Ninth Street in downtown Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that dust on snow decreases albedo, which is a measure of light reflected off the snow. Less albedo means snow is darker and absorbs more heat.

It seems like most cars in Steamboat Springs could use a wash.

Each morning this week, residents who park outside have woken up to a coating of rust-colored dust on their vehicles — a color not often seen in the Yampa Valley.

That’s because the dust is from hundreds of miles away.

“We’ve been in this persistent southwesterly flow pattern and we’re getting a bunch of dust from Arizona and New Mexico,” said Megan Stackhouse, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

In addition to it simply being dry in the southwest, there are also several wildfires burning, including the Hermits Peak and Calf Canon Fires that have burned more than 200,000 acres just east of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The dust is so pervasive that meteorologists are able to see it on satellite imaging that showed some plumes extending all the way to Nebraska at about 9 p.m. on Monday night, May 9.

While not unprecedented, Stackhouse said getting dust like this all the way up in Steamboat isn’t common. Farther south it happens more frequently. Stackhouse said visibility was poor in Grand Junction on Monday and some roads south of there have accumulated piles of dust on the shoulders.

“The dust gets sort of entrained or mixed into this flow and gets brought to the high altitudes and then it whizzes on by,” said Mike Weissbluth, a local meteorologist who runs the forecasting website

Satellite imagery shared on Twitter by the National Weather Service in Grand Junction shows dust is being blown as far as Nebraska around 9 p.m. on Monday, May 9. The pink areas are areas where dust is most intense.
National Weather Service/Courtesy

Winds in the upper atmosphere routinely reach 80 to 90 mph, which means dust could travel across the entire state of Colorado in just a matter of hours.

Weissbluth said in addition to simply blowing, the dust gets into clouds and mixes with precipitation, which left a thick coating of dust on cars after rain on Sunday night, May 8. While it may be annoying to clean off a car, it can also accelerate the rate of snowpack melting.

“It decreases the albedo, so the snowpack is darker and it absorbs more of the sun’s energy, which means it heats up faster and it melts faster,” Weissbluth said.

There have been incidents of dust on snow during the ski season, including earlier this year, Weissbluth said. But the problem has been worse farther south, particularly for resorts in the San Juan Mountains.

Data from two dust-on-snow monitoring sites in the San Juans showed dust shortened the longevity of snowpack cover by between 21 and 51 days, which led to a faster snow melt and more intense runoff, according to research from the University of Utah.

Last year, a similar station was added to the data tower at Storm Peak Lab on the top of Mount Werner. The station, which is operated by the University of Utah, is the sixth in the state.

A front will start to move over the Yampa Valley on Wednesday night, May 11, which will shift the jet stream and cut off the flow of dust from the southwest, Weissbluth said.

Meteorologist Mark Miller said the National Weather Service does have some dust related warnings, but those are generally employed for faster moving dust events like large haboobs that occur in Arizona.

He didn’t anticipate needing to issue a dust advisory for Steamboat in the coming days, but said they are not uncommon in southern Colorado.

“We’re not expecting it to be that widespread,” Miller said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t in the future, it really just depends if we see dust developing on satellite.”

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