Code Orange in Colorado’s Mountains: Orange Snow, Dying Trees and Repercussions

This spring in Colorado, we experienced strong winds that tinted the evening sky with dark shades of orange. People commented on the strange hazy light that these wind storms brought. The winds were colored with orange sand from Utah, covering everything that it hit. I went for a hike on one of these days and returned home with gritty sand in my hair, eyebrows and even on my teeth. The sand carried by strong winds also reached the once pristine high country.

While driving through one of the states more pristine areas, it was shocking to see orange snow.

While the view is still striking, and while we are fortunate to have over 300+ sunny days in Colorado, there are repercussions to the strong winds that have created other changes in our living surroundings. As the sun hits the darker particles in the snow, it increases the temperature within the snow, causing it to melt more quickly than usual, increasing the spring water run off. This may also create a drier summer and have an impact on fires associated with a drier environment. (The pictures above were taken on May 21, 2009.)

The orange snow was created by huge dust storms that brought sand and dirt from Utah.

Many changes have occurred in a relatively short amount of time. It doesn’t stop with the weird orange snow. Within the last 7 years, trees in the mid to northern part of the state have started dying. At first it wasn’t so bad, it was barely noticeable, then all of a sudden, it seemed as if whole mountainsides of once green pines started turning brown overnight.   This is caused by the Mountain Pine Beetle.  It is a native species, but it no longer gets cold enough in the winter time to kill off some of the beetles.  These pictures were taken today (May 28, 2009) around the Winter Park area in Grand County. (They recently had new spring snow.)

This picture was taken in 2009. Since then, more trees have perished creating a landscape that is predominantly brown and grey.

I listened to people in Grand County talk about how the dead trees have impacted their lives. A living pine can absorb up to 20 gallons of water per day. A dead tree, however, doesn’t absorb anything. The spring run off (melting snow) has increased exponentially and caused flooding in basements of houses. Apparently this has never happened before. It has also washed out forest roads creating the need to gate and close certain national forest access roads (much to the dismay of recent Memorial Day campers.)

Within the last 10 years, 'beetlekill' has swept through to kill approximately 90 percent of the pine trees in the Winter Park area.

The phenomenon of the dying trees is happening throughout Colorado, hitting mainly the Lodgepole Pines, and seems to be gradually heading south. If you drive along I-70, you’ll see the same thing around Summit County and Vail. If you stop to talk to locals, you’ll hear them referring to this as “beetle kill”.

I’m of the opinion that we should talk about these issues that are facing us. I believe that it is patriotic to rationally discuss and try to work toward solutions. While investigative journalism by the U.S. major corporate ‘news’ conglomerates no longer occurs, I think that citizens can and have started talking to one another. Conservative talk radio is essentially of a corporate – neoliberal stance, and is trying to use emotion to keep true discussions from occurring. I think that if people see what is happening and begin thinking and feeling, as opposed to being manipulated and led by their raw emotions, then more people will realize that our surroundings are changing. We need to see these changes and react appropriately. Global warming is happening and we need to act.

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