Pink snow is alive in the Cascades, and it’s affected by climate change
It’s not a trick of the light and you are not going crazy, pink snow does exist. In the spring and summer months, snow in Whatcom County’s mountains can turn pink.
The color comes from an algae that can be found in alpine regions across the globe, and is more common than people think, said Robin Kodner, associate professor of environmental science at Western Washington University.
Pink snow is more than interesting, it can be dangerous for the climate.
“Snow algae are just one of the many threats to snowpack and glacier systems worldwide, including Washington state,” Kodner said. “White snow is very reflective, so it reflects solar radiation, but when you darken the snow’s surface, it absorbs solar radiation and increases the rate of snowmelt.”
This snowmelt benefits the algae, as it needs a wet environment to reproduce. The Cascades are a relatively low mountain range, and tend to already have a wet snowpack. A wet snowpack brings algae that contributes to climate change, which brings in more algae and thus creates a cycle, Kodner said.
Kodner is one of the lead scientists for the Living Snow Project, a research team made of students, teachers and volunteers studying the impact pink snow has on climate change and snowmelt. The project is run by Western Washington University, in collaboration with the Desert Research Institute for the Living Snow Sierra.
Volunteers are welcome with the Living Snow Project, and you don’t have to be a scientist to help. There are a lot of people who explore the alpine regions for fun, and since these people are already heading up, Kodner said they may as well bring some testing equipment with them.
The sample kits have been designed to be lightweight and easy to use. Alpine explorers who see any pink snow in the mountains during their trip can take a sample in 5-10 minutes using one of the kits. People can also download the apps for Apple and Android, which let people photograph pink snow and upload the location. Full instructions are on the Living Snow project website as well as the volunteer sign-up sheet.
“It’s remarkable to me how enthusiastic the outdoor recreation community is about pink snow,” Kodner said. “It’s exciting, it’s really neat looking and people don’t always know what it is. I think people are really excited about it. So many of our volunteers are incredibly enthusiastic and really excited about the opportunity to participate in science while they’re out doing something they love anyway. They feel like they are giving back, but they are also just curious about the pink snow.”
When the project started enlisting volunteers to this degree in 2017, the project went from 30 sample takers to 200. In the last six years, they have formed a robust data set of pink snow in the region, Kodner said.
Gathering the data has been the main focus of the project. There is not a lot of historical data on pink snow, and in order to get a good idea of how it has grown and changed over the years, there need to be 20-30 years of robust data.
The studies into pink snow started less than a decade ago, and there is a lot of research to be done before the effects of the algae can be seen.