Beyond Denver

Colorado’s meager snowpack is worrisome

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Snowflakes began falling in Denver on Dec. 1, 1913, and didn’t stop for four days, leaving the city blanketed under 45 inches of snow. Some mountain towns saw even more snowfall, with 86 inches recorded in Georgetown, 53 in Estes Park and about 44 in Boulder. 

The anniversary of Denver’s biggest blizzard comes amid a much different record for the city: 225 days without snow. 

But climatologists say they’re more worried about the meager snowpack levels in the mountains this season.

“Snow in Denver is a bit of a novelty and it is a bit overrated. It doesn’t matter that much here in Denver,” said Chris Bianchi, a meteorologist with 9News. “It matters in the context of climate change and a warmer climate overall, but in terms of affecting our day-to-day lifestyles, snow in the mountains is what really matters.” 

According to the latest map from the U.S. Drought Monitor, the entire state is facing drought conditions and about 40% of Colorado is facing “severe to exceptional” drought levels, further depleting low reservoir levels. Snowpack is below average, too, with the lowest levels in Colorado’s southwest mountains, according to the data released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

The San Juan basin in southwest Colorado is at 35% of an average snowpack level, data show.

A forecast storm could bring some relief to the high country early next week, but it will likely be too dry and warm for snow in Denver, Bianchi said. 

Colorado climatologists answered our questions about this season’s dry conditions and what to expect in the months to come.

How long will this dry spell last? 

Denver likely will be snow-free for the next seven to 10 days, Bianchi said. Forecasts show next Tuesday could bring some precipitation, though it’s too early to say if it will be snow or rain.

“But it does look like the mountains get some snow,” Bianchi said, “and that’s where it really does matter.”

November tied for Denver’s 9th driest on record, with just 0.07 inch of precipitation, according to the National Weather Service office in Boulder.

Denver also finished its warmest and driest combined summer and fall on record. Between June 1 to Nov. 30, less than 2 inches of precipitation was recorded, while an average amount in that period is about 9 inches, Bianchi said. 

Temperatures during the same time period averaged about 65.6 degrees — 3.5 degrees above average. 

“The last six months here have been wild — the fact that we have been so consistently warm and so consistently dry for that long of a time spell, and not just in Denver, throughout eastern Colorado, it’s just been bone dry, we’ve been living basically in the desert for the last six months,” Bianchi said. “That, to me, is a classic sign that we are experiencing the effects of climate change.”

Why no snow?

There’s no one answer to explain the lack of snow, but a La Niña weather pattern and climate change are two factors impacting the state’s parched conditions, especially in the southwest, according to Greg Hanson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder.

During a La Niña winter, most storms come out of the northwestern parts of the U.S. and western Canada before diving down across Colorado. This year, heavy rains brough flooding and mudslides to Washington state, but the storms petered out before reaching Colorado. 

“All of the moisture ends up staying in the Pacific Northwest,” Hanson said. “We don’t get a lot of moisture to produce the snow or the rain that we need to get ahead of the drought.” 

Colorado’s northern mountains could get decent snowpack in a La Niña pattern, he said, while the San Juan and Upper Rio Grande basins tend to be hit the hardest. 

Will we eventually have a snowy winter?

Regarding the mountain’s snowpack: “it’s not necessarily all doom and gloom,” Bianchi said.

“We’ve gotten off to slow starts before. We’re a little over half of where we should be in the season, but one big storm could flip that pretty quickly,” he said. 

Last spring, which was also during a La Niña weather pattern, saw historic levels of rain and snow.

And because spring is Colorado’s main season for snowfall, Hanson said, there’s no need to panic just yet.

“So the conditions now — we should pay attention, definitely — but it really isn’t that alarming until we see how the springtime shapes up.”

Where is snowpack the lowest?

Snowpack is the source of most of Colorado’s water supply, stored in reservoirs after snow melts into water. Right now, reservoirs in the southern and southwestern part of the state and down the Colorado River basin are at record or near-record lows. 

“We have the reservoirs there and one of the reasons they’re there is to have a savings account, so to speak, to have water to get through a dry year or maybe a couple of dry years,” said Russ Schumacher, the state’s climatologist.

“But now they are so low, that that isn’t there. So if we do go through another winter with another sub-par snowpack, the water concerns from western Colorado through the Southwest are going to get pretty serious by next year,” he said.

A “really big snow year” could help ease current conditions, but Schumacher said he’s not feeling optimistic. “What the seasonal outlooks are pointing toward with La Niña in place, is that it’s not really likely that we’re going to have a big snow year in the parts of the mountains that really need one.”

All of Colorado is facing some level of drought, but conditions are slightly better than this week last year, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Monsoonal moisture over the summer brought some improvement to drought conditions along the Front Range and Eastern Plains, but it’s been mostly dry ever since. 

“Now, a lot of places along the Front Range and Eastern Plains have been among the hottest and driest summer and fall time periods that have ever been recorded,” Schumacher said. 

For now, the impacts are not anything to be extremely concerned about at this time of the year, he said, noting that water supplies along the Front Range aren’t in imminent danger. 

Is this year a harbinger of more dry ­winters?

“What’s going to happen with the winters, it’s still tough to say, but the effects of warming, they’re becoming more and more apparent with every year that goes by,” Schumacher said. 

For Hanson, this season’s conditions are a clear sign of climate change.

“This is what climate change looks like, with a more compressed winter season: snow starts later and ends sooner,” he said. “If people want to know what we’re looking at in terms of climate change 50-100 years from now, this is it.”

This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.

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