Favorite stories of 2019: Craziest weather we’ve ever seen
March's epic avalanche cycle represented something no one alive has ever seen
Editor’s note: For the Vail Daily’s year in review, reporters were tasked with telling the story behind their favorite story of the year. This is the fourth in a series.
In examining the stories I most enjoyed telling in 2019, the obvious place to start is to simply read the headlines that were published.
And as I looked over that collection of headlines, a bigger one began to reveal itself: 2019 was the craziest weather year we’ve ever seen in Vail.
And while that headline is obviously more opinion than fact, there is plenty of data to back up the thesis.
My review started with a lot of great headlines from my “On the Hill” conditions reports. During the early part of the year, we were enjoying soft, dry, powdery snow. Mostly white frames were common in the screen grabs from those reports, and I smile again now in looking at the smile on my face as I captured those conditions on video.
The snowpack was also surprisingly stable for a state that’s notoriously dangerous when it comes to avalanches. Skiers were taking to the backcountry during January and February with more confidence that one can usually muster in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Low-water snow was being packed into steep couloirs and staying put. But as we would soon learn, this only meant that when the snow did finally give way, it was going to crash with an intensity that we had never seen.
And that’s a fact, according to Brian Lazar with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. When I asked Lazar if he had ever seen avalanches as big as the ones that would plague the state during March’s deadly avalanche epidemic, he summed it up perfectly.
“To see an avalanche cycle that was so widespread, over a week or two in March, you could say nobody alive has seen that happen,” Lazar said.
This was best evidenced by a nearby slide on Peak One in Frisco.
“We had evidence of that thing running back in the old days, like in the late 1800s, but that created, or rejuvenated, an avalanche path that hasn’t been cleared out like that in over 100 years,” Lazar said.
It was scary feeling being trapped in Vail as I-70 became closed in both directions and Highway 24 — the only other way out of the valley — was buried by an avalanche. I reviewed my text messages from the Eagle County alert system on March 8; it’s something I hope I never see again:
9:42 p.m. — I-70 WB, both lanes closed due to accident
10:32 p.m. — Avalanche on Hwy 24, both lanes blocked
11:19 p.m. — I-70 EB, both lanes closed due to accident
I began to feel claustrophobic and cursed myself for not having my full-winter camping kit more dialed in. Having a 2-meter dome tent with chimney vent and a few slow-burning logs in my possession would have made me feel a lot better.
But the heat remained on in Vail, the roads were cleaned up with relative ease, the cars that were buried did not result in fatalities, and we moved on without really stopping to think “what on Earth just happened?”
Experts seem to agree that what happened was, indeed, a function of climate change. After months of nice, dry, wintery snow, (the kind climate scientists say we can expect less of in the future), the heavy snowflakes that are a harbinger of things to come started falling in March, and the snowpack just couldn’t hold. Lazar says the type of storms we saw in March are the ones climate scientists are worried about for our area.
“Increased storm severity — warmer, wetter, juicier storms — all of those types of things are consistent with climate science,” Lazar said.
Moving into April, we ended the ski season saying that was, indeed, a great year. But if you look back at the season by the numbers, without reading the headlines like I just have, you might not notice anything extraordinary about 2019. In fact, Vail had not even reached it’s “average” snowfall total of 350 inches by the time the lifts shut down for the year.
But the snow kept coming throughout May and June, and if you thought that the crazy weather would be limited to that historic avalanche cycle, you would be wrong. In Vail, Mother Nature had another trick up her sleeve.
Summer started off white as a coat of wet snow blanketed the Gore Range on the day of the solstice. At that point, we thought the streams had reached their peak. After watching the graphs and seeing several spikes in mid-June, we reported that the runoff was “peaking” on June 22. We were wrong.
The true peak of the runoff on Gore Creek happened on July 1; it was the first time a peak runoff had ever occurred in July in Vail, as far as we know. Reporting doesn’t go back very far, but we know the typical peak usually occurs around the first week of June. Climate change in our area, however, has been manifesting itself in the form of earlier peaks in recent years. In another few decades, the average peak is likely to move to late May if the trend continues. But 2019 will throw that trend off by so much that it’s likely to keep June at the average for some time to come.
A big takeaway from all of this, though, is to take your averages and throw them out the window. The idea of an “average” year is gone as extreme becomes the new norm.
Lazar said it well in thinking back on the season.
“To have years that are near the historical average are becoming less and less frequent because of increased variability,” he said. “We’ve got snowy years, and we’ve got dry years, but the idea of an average year is, in some ways, losing some of its meaning.”
And that, as I look back, had become the biggest headline of 2019, for me. Extreme is the new norm, and average is losing its meaning.
But if you’re a skier or snowboarder, you probably enjoy a bit of the extreme. Sometimes, in the face of uncertainty, there’s nothing we can really do but try to embrace it. I’ll be greeting these extreme weather events with the snowy smile I’ve been so pleased to find in reviewing the big stories of 2019, and I hope you’re here in Vail to join me in celebrating one of the things we love most about this place — its crazy weather.