Melting snow provides a large part of the water used throughout the western conterminous United States for agriculture, industry, and domestic supply. It is an active agent in chemical weathering, supplies moisture for forest growth, and sustains fish and wildlife. Despite its importance, virtually nothing has been known of the chemical character of snow in the western mountains until the present study.
Analysis of more than 100 samples, most from the northern Sierra Nevada, but some from Utah, Denver, Colo., and scattered points, shows that melted snow is a dilute solution containing measurable amounts of some or all of the inorganic constituents commonly found in natural water. There are significant regional differences in chemical composition; the progressive increase in calcium content with increasing distance eastward from the west slope of the Sierra Nevada is the most pronounced. The chemical character of individual snowfalls is variable. Some show predominant influence of oceanic salt; others show strong effects of mineralization from continental sources, probably largely dust. Silica and boron were found in about half the samples analyzed for these constituents; precipitation is seldom analyzed for these substances.
Results of the chemical analyses for major constituents in snow samples are summarized in the following table. The median and mean values for individual constituents are derived from 41-78 samples of Sierra Nevada snow, 6-18 samples of Utah snow, and 6-17 samples of Denver, Colo., snow.
The sodium, chloride, and perhaps boron found in snow are probably incorporated in moisture-laden air masses as they move over the Pacific Ocean. Silica, although abundant in the silicate-mineral nuclei found in some snowflakes, may be derived in soluble form largely from dust. Calcium, magnesium, and some bicarbonate are probably added by dust of continental origin. The sources of the other constituents remain unknown.
When snowmelt comes in contact with the lithosphere, the earlier diversity of chemical type largely disappears. The melt water rapidly increases its content of dissolved solids and becomes calcium magnesium bicarbonate in type. Silica, whose concentration increases more than tenfold, shows the largest gain; calcium and bicarbonate contents also increase markedly. Most of the additional mineral matter is from soft and weathered rock; bicarbonate, however, is largely from the soil atmosphere:
Investigators, some reporting as much as a century ago, concentrated attention largely on nitrogen compounds and seldom reported other consituents except chloride and sulfate. The Northern European precipitation-sampling network provides the most comprehensive collection of data on precipitation chemistry, but it does not segregate snow from other forms of precipitation. The present study establishes with confidence the chemical character of snow in the Sierra Nevada, and suggests that the dissolved-solids content of precipitation increases with increasing distance inland from the Pacific Coast.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Chemical composition of snow in the northern Sierra Nevada and other areas