Snow in southwestern United States
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Snow in southwestern United States

January 10, 2011
On December 31, 2010 a strong winter storm moved across the United States, bringing ice, wind and a heavy blanket of snow from New Mexico to Minnesota. But it was the southwestern United States, captured in this true-color image by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Aqua satellite on that same day, which bore the brunt of the storm.

In Nevada, gamblers on the Las Vegas Strip awoke to snow flurries, while over two feet of new-fallen snow strangled freeways in Flagstaff, Arizona, causing dozens of reports of slide-offs, accidents and stranded cars before the highways were closed to traffic. In Colorado, the Silverton Mountain resort reported huge snowfall and closures for avalanche control. A sudden blizzard combined with winds of up to 65mph (105km/h) caused havoc in southern New Mexico.

Although heavy winter storms like this one can be difficult and sometimes locally devastating, in the southwestern United State they also provide much-needed moisture. The Southwest is the driest quarter of the United States, yet the population is growing faster than any other region, causing ever increasing need for an essential yet scarce resource - water. Snowmelt is a primary source for water for most of the population in this region, either directly from the mountains or via melting snow that feeds the Colorado River. For example, Salt Lake City, Utah, derives most of its water from snowmelt in the Wasatch Mountains and San Francisco, California depends on snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which is stored behind the Hetch Hetchy dam.

In this image, Utah is the state seen in the center. Salt Lake City is hidden by a thick bank of white clouds over the north-central part of the state. Las Vegas can be as a gray smudge to the west of a thin blue Lake Meade, just north of the “V” that forms the southernmost tip of Nevada. Flagstaff lies in the north-central section of Arizona, covered by snow and clouds. Due north of Flagstaff, the Colorado River can be seen snaking through the Grand Canyon. Authorities reported about 8 inches of snowfall on the South Rim of the Canyon from this storm.

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