Vail area’s early snowpack is encouraging, but only about at historic averages
By the numbers
114: Percent of normal for the current snowpack around Colorado.
4.5: Inches of “snow water equivalent” on Vail Mountain.
4.4: Historic average water content for the end of November.
76: Inches of total snow reported on Vail Mountain as of Friday, Nov. 30.
Sources: National Weather Service, Colorado Climate Center, Vail Resorts.
EAGLE COUNTY — Our early-season snowfall is more than welcome, but it’s not exceptional. In fact, it’s about in line with historic averages.
Snow in November allowed the Vail and Beaver Creek resorts to open early, but reports from the snow measurement sites at both resorts show levels about on par with historic averages.
Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger said that the last report from Vail she’d seen put the current snowpack right about in the middle of historic norms.
At the National Weather Service office in Grand Junction, forecaster Mike Charnick said that around the state, snowpack is running at 114 percent of seasonal averages.
While the high country is experiencing its first near-normal early season in a couple of years, the snowfall we’ve had so far is jarring compared with the winter of 2017-2018.
“We’re about a month ahead of last year,” Charnick said.
Charnick noted that current snowpack is about equivalent with levels measured in January of this year. That’s about in line with Vail Resorts opening Blue Sky Basin on Vail Mountain on Thursday, Nov. 29. Last ski season, that terrain didn’t open until January.
And despite good early-season snow, Eagle County is still gripped by drought.
In Gypsum, the area is still listed as being in “extreme” drought. The story isn’t much better in Avon and Vail, which both sit in “severe” drought zones.
That’s going to last for a while. Bolinger said current snowfall, while great for skiers, still isn’t enough to chip away at current drought conditions.
Waiting for more
If the Rockies have something resembling an average winter, there could be a solid recovery in much of the state. That recovery, which will come with the 2019 spring runoff, could help refill badly-depleted reservoirs around the state, Bolinger said.
“We’re still in wait and see mode,” Bolinger said. “We need to see how winter plays out.”
Significant snow this year doesn’t mean reservoirs will be re-filled, particularly in the southern part of the state. Bolinger said it could take a couple of decent winters to re-fill Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison.
Weather forecasters don’t make specific predictions more than a week or so into the future. But Charnick said models look optimistic for the current patterns to continue for a while.
Last winter, a large high pressure system set up over the southwestern U.S. and into the Pacific Ocean. That system pushed storms to the north. The resulting storms grazed northern Colorado, while leaving the rest of the state barren.
In addition, Charnick said, not as many storms developed. That happens some years, he added.
Charnick said this year the storm track out of the Pacific is coming more directly into Colorado, and more storms are developing. That’s being helped by a weak El Nino pattern of warmer-than-average water temperatures developing in the Pacific. Those patterns generally favor southwest Colorado but can bring decent snow to the Central Rockies.
More to come?
Federal climate scientists expect the current patterns to persist at least into early 2019. The forecast calls for an above-average chance of above-average precipitation. But the same forecast also calls for an above-average chance of above-average temperatures.
Bolinger said besides snowfall, the region also needs to see cold temperatures. Snow measurement stations tend to be located at higher elevations. That means that snowpack at middle elevations isn’t well understood.
“Last year, the thought was that the discrepancy between snowpack at middle and high elevations played a bigger role (in the drought) than we thought,” Bolinger said. That may have played a role in the fact that water supplies for 2018 were lower than forecast.
If the snowfall and cold temperatures continue, the state could see drought zones shrink.
On the other hand, she said, “If you have a week where you don’t get any (snow), it’s really easy to fall behind. We want to keep having (big snow weeks) … if you have enough in a row, it will start to have an impact on drought improvement.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-748-2930.
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