SNOTEL sites that monitor snowfall throughout the winter measured the snowpack at Independence Pass at 98.4% of average on Dec. 26, with a “snow water equivalent” (SWE) of 6.5 inches. That’s a significant jump from 4.88 inches of SWE the week prior, which represented 80% of average. The snowpack at Independence Pass sharply increased on Dec. 23, from 4.88 inches of SWE on Dec. 22 to 5.12 on Dec. 23. Last year on Dec. 26, the SNOTEL station up the pass recorded an SWE of 4.88 inches.
Snow water equivalent — the metric used to track snowpack — is the amount of water contained within the snowpack, which will become our future water supply running in local rivers and streams.
The monitoring station at the lower-elevation McClure Pass recorded an SWE of 5.2 inches, or 88.1% of average, on Dec. 26. A week before, the station reported 2.91 inches of water contained in the snowpack, or 57.1% of average. Last year, on that same day, the station measured a snowpack holding 3.31 inches of water, or 56.1% of average.
On the northeast side of the Roaring Fork Basin, snowpack at Ivanhoe contains higher water levels than the 1991-2020 average, with 7.09 inches on Dec. 26, which is 120.1% of the average of 5.9 inches. It’s also up from last year’s 4.8 inches of SWE.
FromThe High Country News [December 27. 2021] (Jonathan Thompson):
In early September of 2021, as the Caldor Fire raged toward Lake Tahoe through eastern California’s drought-addled forests, staff at the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort made a desperate bid to fend off the advancing flames: They aimed snowmaking machines at structures and cranked up the water-misting cannons to douse an area that hadn’t seen a lick of rain in months.
At the same time, some 500 miles due east, little more than a trickle of water ran down the broad sandy bed of the Dirty Devil River in eastern Utah. Then a moisture-laden storm dumped its load on the Henry Mountains, filling arroyos to the brim. Over the course of hours, the Dirty Devil’s flow shot up to a churning 14,000 cubic feet per second — more than four times that of the nearby Colorado River — overflowing the normally dry arroyo’s banks. Water flowed six feet deep through streets and parking lots in Hanksville, sweeping away cars and a 500-gallon propane tank and inundating homes and hotels.
This stark contrast epitomizes 2021 in the West, where the devastating effects of drought were juxtaposed with drenching deluges in neighboring states. But amid all the weather whiplash, there was one constant: Temperatures were above “normal” all year long.
Number of days in June the high temperature did not exceed 100 degrees in Phoenix, Arizona.
Estimated number of people who died of heat-related causes in Washington between June 26 and Aug. 31, 2021.
Number of heat-related fatalities in the state in 2020.
Number of heat-related fatalities in Multnomah County, Oregon, during the June “heat dome”; most of the victims were older, lived alone and lacked air conditioning, according to the county health department.
Number of confirmed heat-related fatalities in Maricopa County, Arizona, between April 11 and Nov. 1, 2021.
Number of weeks climate change has lengthened the growing season in the Greater Yellowstone region since 1950.
1.88 inches Amount of precipitation received in Denver between June 1 and Nov. 30, the lowest since record-keeping began in 1872.
118 degrees Fahrenheit
Temperature at Dallesport, Washington, on June 28, the highest ever for the state.
111 degrees Fahrenheit
Temperature at Porthill, Idaho, on June 28.
Amount of rain that fell in Quillayute, Washington, between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, smashing the old record of 51.81 inches set in 1975.
2,261 to 3,637
Estimated number of sequoias over four feet in diameter killed by the Windy and KNP Complex fires in California in 2021.
Amount of rain that fell in Cuba, New Mexico, on Sept. 30, a new monthly record for one-day precipitation.
80 cubic feet per second
Flow in the Rio Grande at Albuquerque on Oct. 25; the median flow for that date is 350 cfs.
Number of homes destroyed by a central Montana wildfire on Dec. 1.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Burn scars left behind by the historic Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires are among areas of Colorado most in need of federal funding for restoration projects to protect water quality, prevent flash floods and mudslides, experts say.
Plus millions of acres of forest across the state need to be cleared of dead and dying foliage to prevent new wildfires or at least stop them from growing so large.
The federal bipartisan infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law last month set aside just under $3 billion for watershed restoration projects and wildfire mitigation work. But however much of that comes to Colorado, which U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse estimates will be “tens of millions,” won’t be enough. No additional money is guaranteed either, after West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin said on Sunday that he won’t support Biden’s $2.2 trillion climate, tax and spending plan, the Build Back Better Act.
The Cameron Peak and East Troublesome burn scars sit top of mind for Neguse and many other state and local officials who recall the grim 2020 season that sparked the two largest wildfires in Colorado’s history. Estimates to restore those two areas alone range as high as $150 million. Mitigation and restoration work across the rest of the state would cost billions.
“The scale and scope of the need is breathtaking,” Neguse said. “We have long unmet needs here in our community and if we don’t address them now, we’re likely to reap the consequences for years to come.”
That means more massive wildfires, Justin Kirkland, Gypsum Fire Protection District chief, said. And more flash floods like the deadly one that flowed through Fort Collins in July and more mudslides like those that forced officials to close Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon later in the summer.
“We’re seeing different fires. First they called them ‘large fires,’ now they’re called ‘megafires.’ They just keep getting bigger and bigger,” Kirkland said. “Unless we change what we’re doing it’s going to get worse and worse.”
Mitigating and preventing wildfires
Year after year, Colorado is seeing drier conditions and more people are moving into or near the wilderness, said Kirkland, whose fire district covers 455 square miles from the Eagle County Regional Airport west toward Glenwood Springs.
Not only are wildfires inevitable but population shifts mean more people and their homes are at risk…
The more cost-effective way to fight wildfires is to invest in mitigation and prevention work, he said. Crews can remove dead and dying trees, thin forests and build fire breaks. But the Gypsum fire district can’t afford to do that work alone so they must partner with other government agencies, private organizations and nonprofits…
In all, about 2.4 million acres of forest are “in urgent need of treatment to address forest health, wildfire risk and watershed protection threats,” the 2020 Colorado Forest Action Plan notes.
Watershed management and restoring burn scars
While there’s prevention and mitigation work to be done on the front end, widespread restoration work is needed along watersheds already scorched by wildfires, Gibbs said.
Wildfires actually burn the ground itself, torching all the organic material around so all that’s left is an ash-laden “powdery dust,” Adam Jokerst, Greeley’s deputy director for water resources, said. Nothing remains to absorb rain or snowfall, which then leads to flash floods and mudslides.
People also can’t drink that water, Jokerst said. Nor can Greeley, which supplies water to about 150,000 people, treat it at its Bellvue Water Treatment Plant northwest of Fort Collins.
To restore burn scars, crews can drop heavy wood mulch by helicopter, install long tubes of straw called wattles on slopes and other blocks in streams and channels to catch sediment, Jokerst said…
And that work takes time, Gibbs added, noting that utilities like Denver Water pay millions each year to restore decades-old burn scars. He mentioned the Buffalo Creek fire, which burned through nearly 12,000 acres southwest of Denver.
“If you’re a mountain biker and you go out there right now, it does not look like it did in 1990,” Gibbs said. “They’ve seen very little revegetation.”
For context, the East Troublesome fire burned nearly 194,000 acres in Grand County and Rocky Mountain National Park. The Cameron Peak fire burned nearly 209,000 acres in the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests, Rocky Mountain National Park and Larimer and Jackson counties.
Gibbs noted that the Grizzly Creek fire scar, spanning more than 32,000 acres east of Glenwood Springs, must also be restored.
Finding money for mitigation and restoration
Some state funds are available for the prevention, mitigation and restoration work. And more became available from bills passed by the legislature this year than ever before, Gibbs said.
Senate Bill 2040 earmarked $30 million for watershed restoration and Senate Bill 258 set aside $29.9 million this year and $1.8 million next year for wildfire mitigation.
But that’s not much relative to the need, which the state forest plan estimates is about $4.2 billion.
Restoring the East Troublesome scar alone will cost an estimated $50 million, Gibbs said. For the Cameron Peak scar that number’s closer to $70 million (Neguse and Jokerst estimated $100 million).
More money is on the way from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but nobody knows how much. Neguse acknowledged that his estimate of tens of millions allows for a wide range of possibilities.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for allocating the money and officials there said it’s too early to say how much states will receive.
Angela Boag, with the state Department of Natural Resources, said once the USDA finalizes its allocations some money will come to the DNR to dole out, some will be handed out directly by the federal government.
Understanding the funding mechanisms alone is complicated, said Boag, who works as deputy director for climate, forest health and energy. She expressed frustration that months likely remain before state officials will understand how much money they can expect.
However much money does come to Colorado, it’ll fall short, Jokerst said. Just this year, crews dropped mulch from helicopters over more than 6,000 acres of the Cameron Peak scar, less than 3% of the total area. All told, the work cost about $18 million, broken into about $87 per minute, per helicopter, he said…
Neguse said a $300 million chunk in the bipartisan infrastructure bill is earmarked for watershed protection but it can’t be spent on federal lands. Neguse wrote to USDA officials asking for more flexibility with that money, but so far told The Denver Post he hasn’t yet heard back…
Money from the bipartisan bill amounts to a downpayment for the country’s forests and watersheds, Neguse said. But it doesn’t offer ongoing funding. For that, he pointed to the Build Back Better Act, which includes $27 billion for more mitigation and restoration work…
Crow pointed to Congressional Republicans who have consistently voted against these types of funding mechanisms. U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, whose sprawling Western Slope district includes much of Colorado’s at-risk forests, voted against the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act.
Crow called Boebert’s opposition to those measures “quizzical.” Representatives for Boebert did not reply to a message seeking comment.
Consistent funding for mitigation and restoration work would not only make Colorado safer but it would also create jobs and pump money into the state’s economy, Crow said. And without that investment, the state will inevitably see more of the same devastation that has swept through in recent years.
Record-setting summer heat baked the typically cooler Pacific Northwest.
The third busiest hurricane season on record sent eight storms barreling into the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Devastating, record-setting tornadoes brought hundreds of miles of destruction across eight states in December.
Tropical downpours flooded New York City, and a February snowstorm crippled Texas and the South.
These are just some of the 18 weather and climate-driven billion-dollar disasters we’ve seen in 2021 so far. As extreme weather goes, this year was one for the record books. Climate change is here, and NOAA is playing a key role in tackling the climate crisis.
Here are 5 ways we’ve helped make America climate-ready, responsive and resilient this year:
1. We put climate information into your hands
A major upgrade to NOAA’s climate.gov made our climate data, graphics, education materials and tools more accessible and easier to locate for millions of users.
We also released a new interactive online tool that helps users determine a county’s risk for, and vulnerability to costly weather and climate disasters such as wildfires, drought, tornado outbreaks and hurricanes.
2. We improved weather forecasts to protect lives and livelihoods
Precision matters: Preliminary results show that NOAA’s National Hurricane Center’s hurricane forecasts this year were 10-20 miles closer to the actual track of the storm two to four days prior to landfall, compared to track forecasts from the previous five years.
Our investments in forecasting capability and improved weather and climate models will continue to pay dividends as more Americans face risks from extreme weather and climate hazards like floods, wildfires, drought and hurricanes.
3. We moved America closer to meeting its clean energy goals
NOAA worked closely with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to coordinate the siting and permitting of offshore wind projects that support the Administration’s clean energy goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, including a comprehensive interagency approach to reduce negative impacts of offshore energy development on fisheries surveys.
We also signed a data sharing agreement with the wind energy developer Ørsted to better understand the physical and biological characteristics of the ocean where offshore wind projects occur.
4. We protected climate-vulnerable maritime wonders for future generations
Designated in June, the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary protects 962 square miles of Lake Michigan known for 36 historically significant shipwrecks. The sanctuary designation supports research, education and outreach, and will foster tourism and recreation in the region while preserving important cultural heritage and natural resources.
In November, NOAA took the first steps toward designating a new Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, a 7,000 square mile area off the central California coast that would protect the area’s rich biodiversity, maritime heritage, and tribal history, while creating new opportunities for research and economic development.
5. We advanced equitable access to climate services
Vulnerable populations face unique threats from a changing climate. NOAA held a series of eight Climate and Equity roundtables across the country — from Alaska to Louisiana — to listen and learn how the agency can better serve vulnerable communities when it comes to specific regional climate hazards. In 2022, NOAA is taking action on the feedback received at these roundtables.
NOAA’s work to provide data, information and solutions to address the climate crisis doesn’t end here.