Snow piles up on the seat of a mountain bicycle chained to a sign in Denver as a spring storm packing high winds and heavy snow sweeps over Colorado's Front Range and on to the eastern plains on Saturday, March 23, 2013. Forecasters predict up to a foot of snow will fall in some locations in Colorado before the storm heads toward the nation's midsection. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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BOISE, Idaho —
A wind storm earlier this month covered a southwestern Idaho mountain range with dust from Oregon and Nevada and accelerated snowmelt due to the darker surface absorbing heat from the sun as opposed to being reflected by pristine white snow, scientists say.
The Idaho Statesman reports that experts said the March 6 storm with winds averaging 34 mph and gusts up to 57 mph put a dust layer on the northern Owyhee Mountains. Hydrologists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture said observations in the region found accelerated melting from March 10 to March 16, with the Owyhee River runoff peaking a week earlier than normal.
"Nobody on our staff has ever witnessed anything similar," said research hydrologist Adam Winstral.
Snow surveyors with the Natural Resources Conservation Service said the dust reached as far east as the upper Mores Creek watershed near Idaho City in south-central Idaho.
"Because it's been so dry in the valleys in Oregon and Nevada, the wind picked the dust up and carried it here," said Ron Abramovich, a water supply specialist with the Idaho Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Abramovich said workers removed 3-inch core samples of snow that, when melted, left a half-inch plug of dust.
"That's just one spot," Abramovich said. "When you spread this much dust over the watershed, you know there are impacts."
Scientists are careful about assigning causes to what appear to be shifts in weather patterns in the region. In general, they say climate change has led to warmer winters, hotter summers and bigger wildfires. That, in turn, has left some deserts with less native grasses to hold the soil in place.
The scientists noted two large fires last year that could have played a role in the March dust storm. The Long Draw fire in Oregon was the largest in the state's history, burning 870 square miles of grass and sagebrush territory. The Holloway fire on the Oregon-Nevada border burned about 380 square miles in Oregon and about 335 square miles in Nevada before being contained late in the fire season.
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