Snowpack news

Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal February 12, 2015 via the NRCS
Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal February 12, 2015 via the NRCS

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best) (Click through for the graphics):

Across much of the West last week it was a wonderful week, as good as they get for March or even April. Except, of course, that it was early February.

In Fraser, the warmth was unsettling to Andy Miller. To have streets bare of snow was one thing. But out on the cross-country ski trails, he found the snow conditions unlike anything he could remember seeing in his almost 40 years of residency. Off trail, the snow was sugary, without a base. But more disturbing was the wetness of the ski trails themselves.

“We used to get spoiled. We put on green wax and, on warm days, a dab of blue. Waxing skis was never much of challenge,” says Miller, a town trustee in Fraser.

But on the ski trails, Miller has been putting purple, a softer wax, on his skis and this week thought he actually needed klister, the softest of waxes ordinarily reserved for skiing on hot spring days.

It’s something I can’t ever remember happening before,” says Miller.

Memory loss? Not at all. Records collated by the Colorado Climate Center show the entire state in the grip of a mid-winter heat wave from Jan. 27 to Feb. 29.

“The northwest portion of the state was 15 degrees above average, and other parts of the state were 12 degrees above average,” said Wendy Ryan, assistant state climatologist.

Steamboat Springs had the highest temperatures for that period in 105 years of record-keeping. Snowfall has been reasonable, but the snowpack has shrunken with the warm temperatures. Instead of a three-wire winter, as ranchers called a year of deep snow, it’s a one-wire winter.

In Summit County, it was the warmest mid-winter period ever in the 54 years of record-keeping at Dillon. In Crested Butte, it was the 5th warmest out of 100 years. And at Grand Junction, it was fourth warmest after 116 years of measurements.

After a dry January, attention turned to reservoir levels. Many are near capacity, a legacy of the big winter of 2013-2014. That’s a little less the case in southwest Colorado.

Lawns on south-facing houses in Telluride were bare last week. How often does that happen in Telluride in early February? “About once or twice a decade,” said Art Goodtimes, a resident since 1981.

West of Durango, the unpaved parking lot at the tiny Hesperus ski area looked like it was made to order for a Tough Mudder race: spatter-the-windshield muddy.

At Beaver Creek, temperatures that hit 40 degrees seemed to favor ski racers in the World Alpine Ski Races who went first, before the snow turned slushy and skis got grabby.

In Crested Butte, the lean snow is causing organizations of the annual Ally Loop ski race to alter starts and finishes.

In the Cascade Range, dump trucks have been called upon in years past to haul up to 55 loads of snow from Mount Bachelor to a ski and snowboard event held each mid-February in Bend, Ore. This year, snow is too scarce and temperatures so balmy that a motocross stunt team was scheduled to replace the snow sports, reports the Bend Bulletin.

In California, it was worse. The state water agency there said that January will likely go down as the driest month in California’s recorded history. Along the shores of Lake Tahoe, “people are raking, picking up pine cones and wondering if winter is only for those who live on the East Coast,” reported the Lake Tahoe News in early February. The website described the situation as “horrible.”

In Alberta, it was dry enough for prescribed burns in the Banff-Canmore area. In Jasper, the Fitzhugh talked about melting snow and rain showers. But examining weather records from the past 30 years, the newspaper blamed faulty memories, not errant weather.

“Despite our memories of frigid Januaries, full of long johns, woolies and frozen eyelashes, this January’s weather … is nothing new or unusual.”

But in Fraser, weather during the last few weeks has been distinctly different from what Miller remembers or the icy climate in which the town 70 miles northwest of Denver takes perverse pride. The town got the title in the 1950 and 1960s when local weather tracker Edna Tucker reliably got up every few hours to note the temperature. Morning radio shows—this was before TV—often had Fraser as coldest in the nation, with minus 30 and minus 40 not all that uncommon in January and February.

This winter, says Miller, it got to 20 below one night. He also remembers that in decades past, the temperature might warm to almost freezing at night – a sure signal of more snow, followed by the icebox once again.

Now, even after a storm, it’s staying well above zero. This icebox clearly is busted.

Rain to replace snow in the Sierra Nevada

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Those big dumps of snow that the Sierra Nevada is famous for? In the future, as the air warms, many of them will be replaced by big drenchings.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that 2014 was the 38th straight year with global annual temperatures above the long-term average.

In California, temperatures last year averaged 61.5 degrees Fahrenheit in California, or 4.1 degrees hotter than the 20th century average, reports the San Jose Mercury News, citing a new report issued last week by federal scientists.

Three other Western states—Alaska, Arizona and Nevada—also experienced their hottest years since 1895, when modern instrumentation became widespread. And Anchorage, Alaska, didn’t have a single day in 2014 in which the temperature dropped below zero, the first time in 101 years of record keeping.

A report by the Aspen Global Change Institute, a non-profit that caters primarily to visiting physicists, finds that the temperature in Aspen has increased during all seasons since 1940. However, precipitation, including snowfall, has increased.

Climate scientists say that it’s only going to get warmer.

Mike Dettinger, with the U.S. Geological Society, was in Lake Tahoe recently, and he echoed the forecast that the average snowpack for the Sierra Nevada in 2050 is expected to be half of what it is now.

“With more rain, less snow, and larger storms, it all comes together that the flood risk goes up in the Sierra,” Dettinger said, according to an account in Lake Tahoe News.

While peak runoff today is in May, rising temperatures will cause peak runoff to eventually be in April, said Arlan Nickel, with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The Tahoe News also noted that Jim Hansen, one of the most vocal of scientists about the need to abate the burning of fossil fuels, also spoke at the conference.

“If you add C02 to the atmosphere, it’s like putting a blanket on the planet,” he explained.

The Lake Tahoe News reported that Hansen, former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, argues that the only way to solve the problem is to levy an across-the-board fee on carbon, with revenues redistributed to households.

From InkStain (John Fleck):

The Colorado Basin’s two primary reservoirs lost, on paper, a million acre feet of water because of January’s dry snowpack, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. That’s the difference between what we expected to end the current water year with based on the January forecast, versus what the forecast looks like today, a month later. The Bureau’s monthly “24-month study” (it comes out once a month and projects conditions for the next two years, hence the name – pdf here) anticipates 1.162 million acre feet less water in Lake Powell than was expected just a month ago.

As currently forecast, that means Lake Powell is expected to drop 8 feet in elevation in 2015, while Lake Mead drops 7 feet.

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