February had least snowfall in 30 years
A year’s difference
Here’s a look at the difference in March 1 snowpack compared to March 1 of 2015.
• Colorado River Basin (including the Eagle River): Up 6 percent.
• Gunnison River Basin: Up 22 percent.
• Yampa/White (Steamboat Springs): Up 17 percent.
• Statewide: Up 12 percent.
Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service.
EAGLE COUNTY — Lots of early snow is a very good thing. Despite the lowest snowfall numbers in at least 30 years, snowpack is holding up well across Colorado’s Western Slope.
How dry was February? The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s snow measurement stations at Beaver Creek and Vail Mountain recorded just more than 50 percent of the average snowfall for the past 30 years — 58 and 54 percent, respectively.
That’s still better than other areas around the Western Slope. The measurement site at Schofield Pass, between Aspen and Crested Butte, reported 33 percent of the historical average during February.
Despite a lack of new snow and warmer-than-normal temperatures, the area’s snowpack remains in good shape.
The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District reported that snowfall at the Vail, Copper Mountain and Fremont Pass recording sites was tracking either at or slightly above historical averages on Feb. 1.
“Being at 90 percent (of average) — that’s all right,” Eagle River Water & Sanitation District communications and public affairs manager Diane Johnson said. “We were in worse shape in 2013 until we got bailed out by that storm that hit after (Vail) Mountain closed.”
HIGH PRESSURE RIDGE BREAKS
That dry February was largely the result of a ridge of high barometric pressure that set up to the west of Colorado and stayed for a few weeks.
Matthew Aleksa, a meteorologist at the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service, said that high pressure ridge let only a few small snowstorms into this part of the Rockies after the last significant snow-making system hit the area between Jan. 30 and Feb. 2. Johnson said that storm boosted snowpack in this area to levels that helped the area ride out a dry month.
Aleksa said the high pressure ridge has finally broken down and moved off to the east. That opened the door for the storm system that hit the Vail Valley March 6 and 7.
That system left a coating of wet snow on local roadways that snarled Monday traffic from about 7 a.m. into the late morning. At one point, it took just more than an hour to drive from a point about a mile west of Avon on Interstate 70 into the Vail Daily building in Eagle-Vail.
While snow fell past the early-morning reporting period, Vail Mountain’s website was reporting 3 inches of new snow Monday morning. Beaver Creek’s website reported 4 inches of new snow during the same period.
Aleksa said areas to the west of the Vail Valley were harder hit, with snow reporting stations on the Grand Mesa, southwest of the valley, reporting between 5 and 10 inches of new snow.
LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE
While snowpack held largely steady during February, that is one of the area’s more snowy months, so there’s catching up to do.
That won’t come for a while. Aleksa said current prediction models forecast another warm, sunny week through the region, with no new snow in the forecast until March 15 or so.
That’s about as far into the future as meteorologists can look with any certainty. Longer-range forecasts aren’t nearly as accurate. Still, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center has some potentially good news.
The 90-day outlook for precipitation shows a 50 percent chance of above-average precipitation for all of Colorado through the end of May. That could bode well for the final month or so of the current ski season at Vail and Beaver Creek. It could also be good news for water supplies, since most of the valley’s drinking water comes from snowpack.
This snow season — which stretches from October through May — also seems to be hewing to historical norms for El Nino weather patterns, which develop to the west of South America in the Pacific Ocean. Those patterns, which are typified by warmer-than-normal ocean temperatures in that area, usually bring more precipitation early and late in the snow year, with relatively dry conditions through the mid-winter months.
There’s more potentially good news in the future for the Vail Valley. While this year’s El Nino pattern has about run its course, Aleksa said that temperature monitors show that the next pattern to develop will be a La Nina, which has cooler-than-normal temperatures in the same area of the Pacific. The storms spawned by La Nina conditions are generally more favorable to this part of the Rockies. The epic snow season of 2010 — 2011 came during a La Nina pattern.
But that’s next season — maybe. For now, it looks as if the region is on track for a good finish to the snow season, if not the ski season.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, email@example.com or @scottnmiller.