This winter, Denver broke a significant record – the longest it has ever taken for its first measurable snowfall of the winter. The old record – November 21 – was broken more than a week ago, and with no snow yet in the forecast, that record may be broken by 2 weeks or more. Meanwhile, the city approaches the record for the all-time longest gap without snow – 235 days – set back in 1887. What’s going on this winter, and what does it mean for the mountains of Colorado?
Unfortunately, Denver’s lack of snow is representative of a larger statewide trend that is even worse in southern Colorado. Of the state’s 40 or so major river basins, Only two currently report an above-average snowpack compared to the 30-year average (both near Colorado Springs). In the rest of the state, the snowpack levels range from 80% of normal snow levels in the Arkansas River Valley to 0% in the extreme western part of the state. Most of the northern mountains are in the range of 54% to 76%, while those in the south range from 12% to 57%.
What is causing this delayed snowfall, and what does it mean for Colorado, in terms of the environment, recreation, agriculture, and wildfires?
What's causing this delay in snow cover?
The causes of this delay are mixed – you can never truly draw a clear line between day-to-day weather and the many complex factors that cause them. La Nina is likely playing a role in the reduced snowpack, along with a broader ongoing drought spread across the west. However, the pattern of a warming climate is too obvious to ignore when 130-year-old records get knocked down one after another.
“The last six months here have been wild,” said Chris Bianchi, a meteorologist with 9News. “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.”
What are the biggest impacts of the delay?
In the immediate turn, the biggest impact of the lack of snow falls on ski areas and others dependent on snow cover for economic livelihood. Steamboat Springs, Telluride, and Beaver Creek ski areas have all delayed openings, and many other states across the west still don’t have any ski areas open at all. However, the biggest potential impact won’t be known for several months.
The winter snowpack in the mountains is critical during the spring and summer. As the snow melts and fills rivers flowing down the valley, it feeds agricultural operations and millions of people in the cities located along with the front range. With the west already in the grips of an exceptional drought, we need several winters with a higher than average snowpack to begin refilling the many reservoirs that are already severely depleted.
What can be done to fix the situation?
While it is possible for heavy snowfall during the winter and spring to make up for this early lag, this is not the kind of start to the season most climatologists hoped to see. Even an average winter snowpack will not be enough to recharge the Colorado River – which will increase the risk of summer wildfires, limit farmers’ ability to grow crops, and make water more precious, and more expensive for everyday users. If this season snowpack continues along its current trajectory, we can expect a horrible wildfire season this summer, and major disruptions for farmers and others who rely on mountain water for their livelihoods.
Want to help solve the problem? While it’s a complex situation, It’s easy to make an individual positive impact. Here are five things you can do to help reduce water scarcity all year-round in Colorado and elsewhere!
- Advocacy/Education: Talk to others about the issue! Support those taking action, write about it on social media and in letters to the editor, and learn more yourself.
- Save water at home by only running the dishwasher when full, buying high-efficiency appliances, and quickly identifying and fixing leaks.
- Get rid of your water-hungry grass lawn and replace it with drought-tolerant plants and rocky landscaping.
- Vote for and support candidates for office who prioritize solving this water scarcity crisis across the American West.
- Help address climate change, the core cause of reduced snow levels, by cutting back on your carbon emissions wherever possible.