DENVER, COLORADO – Over a week from January 12th to 18th, Colorado endured a major winter snowstorm, marking one of the state’s most significant January events in recent years. This storm brought not only an impressive volume of snow but also a suite of challenges ranging from transportation disruptions to avalanche dangers.
Here’s a round-up of the storm’s most significant impacts and details on the snowfall, wind speeds, and low temperatures recorded. There are also tips with lessons learned from the storm and its aftermath. Dig in below – cheers!
Avalanche Dangers and Mountain Pass Closures
The storm led to over 600 reported avalanche slides, a stark reminder of the power of nature and the risks inherent in mountainous regions. Key mountain passes, including I-70 at Vail Pass and the Eisenhower Tunnel, experienced multiple closures. One notable incident was an avalanche on Berthoud Pass that hit ten vehicles. Thankfully, there were no injuries, but the event led to the pass’s closure for two days for mitigation efforts.
Avalanche conditions remain dangerous across Colorado, with most areas currently a 3/5 on the Avalanche danger scale (CONSIDERABLE). Check the forecast, get training, bring the right gear, and make safe decisions if you choose to head into the backcountry. The risk is expected to gradually decline as recent snow begins to stabilize, though a weak layer will remain a hidden hazard for quite some time, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Read the most recent forecast for more info.
A Deep Freeze Across the State
Accompanying the heavy snowfall were bitterly cold temperatures, a consequence of an arctic air mass that had moved into the region. Wind chill temperatures across the Front Range plummeted to -40°F, creating life-threatening conditions.
The mountains saw high wind speeds, with gusts over 100mph recorded at at least four different locations above 10,500 feet, including one near Breckenridge that hit 114mph. This brought deadly windchill temperatures to many areas across Colorado.
Tragically, this extreme cold was linked to four deaths in the Front Range metro area. The storm also wreaked havoc on air travel, with more than 300 flight cancellations, and on the roads, where hundreds of accidents were reported, and dozens of roads, highways, and pass closures were announced over the week.
Snowstorm’s Silver Lining
In the aftermath, Colorado’s snowpack levels saw a significant boost, nearing the 10-year average. Multiple ski areas reported more than 60″ of snow over the week-long storm, with many areas receiving 2-4ft of snow on January 14-15 alone. This is a crucial factor for the state’s water resources as it moves into the latter part of winter and into spring. As of January 21, snowpack levels were at 95% of normal, with certain areas in the northwest and north reporting snowpack depths above the average.
Comparing to the Historic 2019 Bomb Cyclone
The 2024 winter storm dropped more snow than the historic 2019 storm in March. However, the two blizzards differed significantly. The 2019 bomb cyclone was historic for both its high snowfall and the speed at which it dropped snow. The 2019 storm delivered wind gusts of 60 to 100 mph and dropped 1 to 3 feet of snow across the mountains in less than 48 hours.
In contrast, the 2024 storm spanned a longer period with temperatures as low as -20°F and wind gusts reaching 110mph at Breckenridge Ski Area. Despite its longer duration and greater overall snow levels of 4-5 feet, the 2024 storm’s impact was less severe compared to the concentrated and sustained fury of the 2019 cyclone.
Avalanche Forecast and Precautions
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) highlighted the formation of a pronounced weak layer of buried near-surface facets under a cohesive slab of snow due to the storm. This combination increased the avalanche risk, especially in areas where the wind had formed thicker slabs. The CAIC warned that the sensitivity to triggers had increased at lower elevations, a departure from typical conditions, urging backcountry users to exercise extreme caution.
Winter Driving Safety and CDOT’s Response
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) faced significant challenges during the storm, with long closures of key passages like Vail Pass and Eisenhower Tunnel. In response to the storm’s impact on road safety, CDOT emphasized the importance of carrying emergency gear during winter driving in Colorado. This includes items like snow brushes, blankets, water, tire chains, first aid kits, food, and emergency flares.
In a statement, John Lorme, CDOT’s Director of Maintenance and Operations, highlighted the department’s efforts: “CDOT crews have been working continuously for a week to clear our roadways and avalanche slide paths to either safely keep open or reopen roads and to ensure the movement of the traveling public and the goods they depend on,” emphasizing the team’s commitment to public safety and collaboration with CAIC and the Colorado State Patrol.
As Colorado moves into a quieter weather period for the remainder of the month, the state is taking stock of the lessons learned from this formidable winter event. The 2024 storm, while not as severe as the 2019 bomb cyclone, was a potent reminder of nature’s unpredictable power and the critical importance of preparedness and caution in extreme weather conditions. It stands as a testament to the resilience of Colorado’s communities and the dedicated efforts of emergency responders and state agencies in safeguarding the public during such challenging times.