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Impurities in snowpacks

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Snow can be involved in the acquisition, transport, storage and release of atmospheric impurities. Because it can store impurities for periods of time ranging from hours to millenia, it provides a medium for monitoring atmospheric impurities for a wide range of time scales.

In most climates, snow is involved in the precipitation process. It can acquire atmospheric impurities either as aerosols or as gases. The aereosols can be included in the body of the snow crystals or adhered to their surfaces. Gases may be included in bubbles, particularly in the case of rime, or adsorbed on the ice surfaces. The amount of ice surface in a small storm is about 1010 m2.

Snow on the ground can store the impurities acquired in the precipitation process and can acquire additional impurities as dry deposition. The low temperatures and the fact that ice is a solid reduces biological activity and rates of inorganic reactions. However, the assumption that there is no activity in the winter is not well found. Exchange is possible between different layers of the snow and between the snow and the atmosphere, resulting in relocation of gases and aerosols. These processes also insure that the impurities reside on the exterior surfaces of the ice particles that form the snowpack. Biological activity is possible near the ground-snow interface in most climates.

The seasonal snowpack releases its impurities when it melts. Because below freezing processes relocate any internal impurities to the ice surfaces within the snowpack, the impurities are available to the first melt water. Pulses of both acidic and alkalinic impurities have been observed with the initial snow melt water. However, the monitoring of such pulses is difficult and the measurements are inconsistent.

Impurities are incorporated for longer periods of time in perennial snowpacks and finally in ice fields. These can be glaciers, or, at the largest scale, continental ice sheets. Coring such ice is expensive but provides data on atmospheric composition and climate for periods of time up to millenia. Such data are not available from other sources.

Not all the problems associated with using snow as an environmental monitor have been resolved. In general, a good qualitative understanding is available but in many cases basic, quantitative data on the processes are not available. Work is in progress to acquire such data.

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Contribution from ‘Fourth World Wilderness Congress—Acid Rain Symposium, Denver (Estes Park), Colorado’, September 11–18, 1987.

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Sommerfeld, R.A. Impurities in snowpacks. Environ Monit Assess 12, 66 (1989). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00396736

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  • Precipitation Process
  • Freezing Process
  • Qualitative Understanding
  • Environmental Monitor
  • Additional Impurity