Director’s Letter March 2023

Winter - Redrock black and white

“Ma”: Snow, Sublimation, and Negative Space

Thirty spokes are joined together in a wheel,

but it is a centre hole that allows the wheel to function.

We mould clay into a pot,

but it is emptiness inside that makes the vessel useful.

We fashion wood for a house,

but it is the emptiness inside that makes it livable.

We work with the substantial,

but the emptiness is what we use.


Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu (4th Century BC)


The Japanese concept of “Ma” captures the importance of the snowpack stored in the mountains. Snow from the Rocky Mountains feeds the Colorado River and brings balance to the ecosystems of the southwest and peaceful co-existence to water consumers.

Image result for Mc Escher Negative art Fish Birds. Size: 173 x 185. Source:

“Ma” is a Japanese art concept that roughly translates as negative space. In western art, negative space is the empty space around the subject of an image that brings the image to life. The artist M.C. Escher played with this idea, showing how negative space can both define and become an image, such as with his engraving of fish and birds. But conceptually “Ma” is more than just empty space; it is the space the allows people, places, things, and experiences to co-exist peacefully.

In a striking example of negative space, just outside Gothic my wife and I once came across the imprint of an owl capturing a mouse. Indeed, with a snowpack that reaches 8 feet, sticking above ground, such as cabins, trees, and fenceposts, stands in contrast to a sea of white.

The harshness of winter provides a strong contrast to the colors of spring and summer, serving as negative space in time. About 25 years ago, after six months of whiteness in Gothic, I viscerally felt green observing grass and trees coming to life.  But the snowpack isn’t just negative space that brings imagery to life, it brings life itself! The water contained in the snowpack not only powers the colorful explosion of Crested Butte’s wildflowers, but the Colorado River, fed by snowpack, supports 16 million jobs and $1.4 trillion of annual economic activity. Lacking sufficient snow, the states of the Colorado River Basin are marching towards litigation. A lack of snow means a lack of peaceful co-existence.

This month we feature (see adjoining article) a research project, “Sublimation of Snow”, led by Dr. Jessica Lundquist (Univ. of Washington). Perhaps the epitome of negative space, sublimation occurs when snow evaporates, passing directly from solid to a vapor. When snow blows, sometimes it doesn’t just get deposited elsewhere; it can disappear into the sky. With 40 million people depending upon the Colorado River, just how much snow disappears matters. Evaporating snow is hard to measure, but piggybacking sensors, such as 65’ towers to measure wind at different heights and snow pillows to measure water in the snow, on top of the extensive atmospheric deployment (e.g., X-Band Radar, Doppler LiDAR, and laser scanners) already deployed around Gothic provides a unique opportunity to “see” snow evaporate.

Understanding the lifeblood of the basins by closing the water budget through measuring sublimation is the scientific equivalent of using white space to help images emerge! And let’s cross our fingers for a big snowpack, the “Ma” that will bring balance to the ecological relationships of the Colorado River Basin!

To read more about the research, check out:

And if snow in Japan catches your interest, check out The Snow Country by Nobel prizing-winning author, Yasunari Kawabata.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL