Winter weather worrisome?
What season is it right now in the mountains? Winter is wheezing like a mule in a marathon and it’s too early to be spring – so we’ll call this weird warmth-wave “halftime.”
Following in the footsteps of other great events – like the Super Bowl and great Broadway shows – winter this balmy, muddy January appears to have taken an intermission.
“It’s exceptionally warm – it’s great,” says Jim Powell of Eagle-Vail. “It’s an early spring, though we need some snow.”
January’s unusual warmth and lack of snow puts some locals in a real meteorological jam, however. On the one hand, many say they don’t mind sun-bathing in the subtropical interlude; they’re happy to head up the slopes dressed for Arapahoe Basin in May. On the other hand, without snow and skiers, Vail would be just a serene, beautiful and souvenir-manhole-coverless truck stop on the way to Parachute.
“I own a business, so it needs to get colder,” says Bill Hammer, also of Eagle-Vail. “The snow’s melting. Even last year, which was a dry year, all the grass on the Eagle-Vail golf course was covered. Now, you can see the grass.”
Despite the dry, sultry spell; despite valley hiking trails wallowing in mud-season swampiness, the snow on at least one of the local world-famous ski hills is holding up fairly well. Skiers on Vail Mountain this week revelled in the soft snow and blazing blue skies, though the big dumps of November and Christmas – the earliest ever opening of Blue Sky Basin – are now a melting, muddy memory.
Longtime weather watcher Frank Doll says snowfall at his home in Avon is more than 50 percent below average for January; snowfall for the entire winter is a paltry 41 percent of average.
“It doesn’t feel like snow. It doesn’t look like snow. It doesn’t act like snow,” Doll says.
Though February and March are traditionally the snowiest months of the winter, Doll says there’s reason to be worried.
“It’s very simple – no snow, no water,” Doll says.
A string of dry winters led to water shortages and widespread wildfires last summer. A dry winter followed by another lackluster monsoon season could drive up wildfire anxiety, as well as push water supplies to the brink.
Doll says he counted 8.3 inches of snow in January, a month that traditionally sees more than twice that –an average 17.5 inches. The lowest ever recorded for January was 1981, when only 5 inches fell. But the following January, 44 inches buried the valley, he says.
“We’ve had dry Januarys in the past, but it was also dry this December,” Doll says. “November was the only wet month.”
Not only has the snow been scarce, temperatures have been abnormally Floridian, Doll adds.
“Thirty-one degrees was the low Thursday night – for January that’s a heat wave,” he says.
So what’s the outlook?
“We do have a chance of snow showers all week for the Vail area,” says Ellen Heffernan, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. “It definitely looks like Sunday is going to be the best day, but we’re a little uncertain just how strong it’s going to come in.
“I think every winter is unique,” she adds. “While this month has been warmer than normal, there’s a pretty broad range as to what is a normal winter and what is not a normal winter, but so far this winter is drier than normal.”
Even so, forecasters say they expect normal snowfall this month, as well as next month.
“We could use snow every day of ski season,” says Rick Fields of Eagle-Vail. “But it doesn’t bother me that it’s warm. I’m not a downhiller, I do cross-country, so this works out fine for me.”
Tellingly, perhaps, Fields was heading into an Eagle-Vail bicycle shop when he was interviewed Friday morning.
“I’d much rather get on my bike sooner than later,” Fields says.
Snowpack hints of another dry summer
With just 40 percent of Colorado’s snowfall season remaining, snowpack measurements in the mountains are showing another dry year is shaping up.
Snowpack, measured November through April, supplies 80 percent of the water used in the state. In the Colorado River Basin, it’s currently at 69 percent of average; the water contained in that snow, meanwhile, is just 74 percent of average – and that’s a few percentage points better than most of the state’s drainages.
“If our weather pattern of the last two months continues for the next two, we’re definitely going to see another dry year,” said Mike Gillespie, snowpack survey supervisor for the state Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Last summer’s drought in Colorado was the worst in 125 to 400 years, depending on which records you compare. Tree-ring surveys suggest it was the worst since the 1500s.
Automatic snowpack recording devices show the snowpack on Vail Mountain Jan. 31 was 77 percent of the long-term average, with a moisture content of 96 percent of normal. At Fremont Pass, at the headwaters of the Eagle River, snowpack is 79 percent of average, with 89 percent of the average moisture.
Following are snowpack and moisture measurements, respectively, from the state’s eight river drainages:
– Arkansas River – 74 and 77 percent.
– Gunnison River – 74 percent and 77 percent.
– Yampa/White River – 75 percent and 82 percent.
– San Juan River – 57 percent and 68 percent.
– Rio Grande – 59 percent and 68 percent.
– The South Platte – 65 and 78 percent.
– The North Platte/Laramie River Basins – 93 percent and 83 percent
– The San Miguel/San Juan basin – 64 percent and 72 percent.
Colorado isn’t alone in its dryness. Arizona’s snowpack is ranging from 20 to 43 percent or normal, while Idaho and Montana’s snowpack numbers mirror Colorado’s. Nevada is seeing more moisture than normal around Lake Tahoe, but below-normal snowpack elsewhere.
New Mexico’s snowpack, meanwhile, is above normal in some drainages, but most are at levels similar to Colorado.
– Cliff Thompson
Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at email@example.com.