Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Rainy Riddle Milky-White Showers Shake Up Silver City Area
By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
LAS CRUCES You've heard of the Milky Way. Now there's the milky rain.
Scientists and others are trying to get to the bottom of a meteorological mystery in southwestern New Mexico: What caused the milky-white rain that fell last week over a large swath of Grant County, from Silver City to the Gila Cliff Dwellings?
"I don't know what it was, but it left a milky, white residue on all the vehicles in town," said Lt. Eddie Ortiz, 48, of the Grant County Sheriff's Department, talking about the unusual Jan. 7 rainstorm.
"It was like someone spilled milk on your windshield and it dried up," Ortiz said. "It was very weird, very strange. I've lived here all my life, and I've never seen anything like it."
The storm left the few carwashes in Silver City busy for days as residents tried to remove the white residue the storm left behind.
Efforts to analyze the mysterious rain began quickly. Among those collecting samples were Gila resident Russel Dobkins, the Gila Resources Information Project, or GRIP, a Silver City-based environmental group and the state Environment Department.
Rain samples were sent last week to laboratories at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro and the University of Texas at El Paso. A New Mexico State University professor was also enlisted to examine weather patterns the day the white rain fell.
"This was an unusual event, and we are trying to determine what caused it," said Environment Department spokeswoman Marissa Stone.
Based on his own research, Dobkins, a biochemistry student at Western New Mexico University, said the white rain fell over a 200-square-mile area from the Arizona border to the Mimbres Valley.
The rain apparently caused no permanent damage to cars or other property, according to the sheriff's department, and there have been no confirmed reports of health problems resulting from the event.
But Allyson Siwik, a GRIP executive director, said local residents want to know what turned the rain a milky white in order to put any concerns to rest.
"There's definitely a buzz around town," Siwik said. "We hope to figure out what it is and turn the speculation into something based on science."
Paul Maynes, manager at the Silver City Auto Spa, said he had heard speculation that dust from a volcanic eruption in South America mixed with rain to create the white appearance.
But Richard Aster, a seismologist and geophysicist at New Mexico Tech, shot that theory down Tuesday.
"There is absolutely no credence to that," Aster said. "There haven't been any large global events that would have sent anything our way."
Thomas Gill, an associate professor of geological sciences at UTEP, who is investigating the white rain event, said he suspects that a dust storm or storms that blew northeast into Grant County from the state's Bootheel and southeastern Arizona were a "major contributor to this phenomenon."
Gill said that chemical analyses could link the white rain's content to dusty playas large dry lake beds in the Bootheel area.
If that is the explanation, Gill said, it does not diminish how unusual it was for rain to have formed milky puddles in Silver City and the surrounding areas.
"I haven't really heard of milky rain before," Gill said. "I've heard of dusty rain or muddy rain, but it's usually not a milky color."