Vanishing act: Drought and unseasonable warmth sends Colorado’s snowpack into freefall

by Tom Yulsman

Except for the shoulders of Longs Peak and other mountains in the distance, almost no snow is evident in this picture taken above Gem Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park last Friday. The lake sits at 8,830 feet. (PHOTO: Courtesy Tom Yulsman)

Like a spring avalanche, snowpack in Colorado has plunged off a precipice. Statewide, snowpack usually peaks in early to mid-April, but this year it began to melt off rapidly in early March.

On March 1, snowpack in most of the mountainous parts of the state was between 70 and 89 percent of average. By the third week of the month, a dramatic melt-off was underway. Now, snowpack in the state stands at just 58 percent of normal. That’s only a bit higher than in March of 2002, a year that brought drought of historic proportions to Colorado and the West. By mid-June, 19 U.S. wildfires were burning, most in California, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Alaska. (The worst March conditions on record in Colorado were in 1977, when snowpack stood at just 46 percent of average.)

Almost all of the state is abnormally dry, with about half in moderate to severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. (For Boulder, it was the driest March on record, with just a trace of precipitation.) Drought extends all the way across much of the rest of the West as well, including California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The odds are not good for relief in the next few months, with higher than average chances of dry conditions continuing at least through June, according to the Climate Prediction Center.

Already, we’ve experienced the North Fork Fire southwest of Denver, which has killed two people and scorched more than 4,000 acres. (As of Saturday afternoon, it was 90 percent contained, according to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.) And with conditions in the state (not to mention across much of the West) shaping up to be quite combustible in the next few months, resource managers are getting increasingly concerned.

“Conditions are really bad,” U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin was quoted in the Denver Post as saying. “Conditions might improve. If they don’t, we’re in for a long haul.”

The dark blue line charts the early and precipitous decline in Colorado’s statewide impact. On average (the yellow line), snowpack is much higher in March, and does not peak until early to mid-April. (IMAGE: Natural Resources Conservation Service)


Tom Yulsman is an associate professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication and co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism. Professor Yulsman is also also affiliated with CU’s Environmental Studies Program.

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