COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Conditions were just right Wednesday morning for the creation of a band of snow showers downwind from the Suncor refinery and Xcel Energy Cherokee power plant, known as industrial snow.
Denver7 Chief Meteorologist Mike Nelson said there was plenty of humidity Wednesday morning and several areas of fog, which left a haze over much of Denver through the day.
"The atmosphere was basically saturated with moisture. Then, the smoke stacks at the refinery put out not only heat, moisture and also little bits of air pollution called aerosols. There were just enough extra ingredients to make little flakes of snow, so downwind from the refinery, we had light snow," Nelson said.
Commerce City resident Page Turner said she woke up, looked out her kitchen window to see fog and snow.
"It was kind of gloomy," she said. "Then, it got kind of sunny all of a sudden. I though that was kind of strange."
"We have seen studies for decades, as long as I've been doing weather, of the effect downwind from cities," Nelson said. "You get tiny little particles, called aerosols, and you can have a little heavier precipitation that occurs downwind from that."
Suncor spokeswoman Mira Adesanya said they use a lot of steam at the refinery.
"Steam is generated on-site through various operations and utilized throughout the refinery to keep processes warm and power equipment. At all times, the refinery maintains an excess supply of steam during normal operations to account for steam demand. Excess steam can be seen at various venting locations across the refinery," Adesanya said. "During cooler weather, condensed water vapor clouds from cooling towers can also be seen."
When asked if industrial snow has more pollution, Nelson said, "Well, you shouldn't eat snow anyway, but that stuff I might particularly avoid tasting."
He added that industrial snow is not uncommon. Nelson said it's important for drivers to be careful driving near refineries and power plants because the snow can turn the roads and highways icy.