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Meteorologists predict a mostly average winter in Southern Colorado 

Winter is coming

click to enlarge The U.S. Drought Monitor is jointly produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. - MAP COURTESY OF NDMC
  • Map courtesy of NDMC
  • The U.S. Drought Monitor is jointly produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The words “Colorado winter” may bring to mind snow-covered mountains and quilts by raging fires, but southern Colorado winters can be downright balmy some years.

Meteorologists say Colorado winters are notoriously difficult to predict. “It’s something that everybody always wants to know and we wish we could give super reliable forecasts,” Russ Schumacher, Colorado State University associate professor, Colorado Climate Center director and Colorado State climatologist, says.

While the predictions might not be perfect, long-term forecasts show Colorado Springs is most likely to get an average winter this year. Neither an El Niño nor a La Niña effect is anticipated; forecasters expect winter to be slightly warmer than normal, and perhaps a little wetter than average.

The mountains should get a good coating of snow, the experts say, so go ahead and buy those ski passes.

Wet weather is a blessing in dry southern Colorado, if a mixed one. As the past two years have shown, the area can swing wildly — even in lush times a drought can be around the corner, and that teeter-totter will likely become more evident as the climate changes. And while snow and rain fill reservoirs and refresh trees, all that water can evaporate quickly come a hot summer, and leave overgrown forests susceptible to drought.
Back in winter 2017-18, southern Colorado (and most of the state) was dry as a bone. October, November and December rolled by without a significant storm in Colorado Springs, and by January people had begun to worry that summer would bring another fire season like 2012 and 2013, when the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires ravaged the area.

Indeed, 2018 brought one of the worst wildfire seasons in Colorado history — though not for Colorado Springs. It was followed shortly by the memorable 2018-19 winter. Boy, did it snow. By May, Colorado’s snowpack had reached 161 percent of the 1981-2010 median. Arapahoe Basin was open for skiing on the Fourth of July.

“We’ve seen the sort of whiplash between those two extremes over the past couple of years,” Schumacher says.

By spring this year, the monsoon season, normally concentrated in July and August, had started in Colorado Springs. (It was still going strong as of this writing.) Schumacher notes that by late spring, not a single bit of Colorado showed drought conditions on the U.S. Drought Monitor Map — the first time he can recall seeing an all-clear since the map started tracking data in 2000.

Even now, just a few small patches of Colorado are “abnormally dry.”

That’s odd, he says, noting, “We almost always have drought somewhere in the state.”

If the Front Range is wet, the higher elevations seem to have taken on the lush carpet of an Oregon forest. On the trails outside of Cripple Creek, a merry variety of mushrooms dot the underbrush.

Colorado Springs Utilities reports that on Aug. 11 its local water storage was at 83.9 percent of capacity, compared with 61.2 percent at this time the previous year, and a 30-year average of 76.4 percent of capacity for that day of the year. The system-wide storage (including high mountain reservoirs) stood at 88.5 percent of capacity on Aug. 20. Reservoirs are normally at 80.4 percent of capacity this time of year.
All that wet weather has created a lot of work for Colorado Springs City Forester Dennis Will and his crew. As of mid-August, Will says his crew still had 661 storm clean-up jobs to perform (picking up slash piles or removing hanging branches from trees) due to damage from snowstorms in May.

Meanwhile, the areas that city forestry recently mitigated — removing underbrush and thinning trees to slow potential fires — all need to be retreated due to regrowth that’s happened at two to three times the expected rate. That work needs to be done soon, while it can still be mowed. Once the vegetation gets larger, it gets much more expensive to treat.

Meanwhile, Will has more than 500 requests to prune or trim city-owned trees, and his crew is years behind on normal pruning in the city parks.

On the bright side, Will says, the trees are healthy, and his crew grew from four to seven workers this year. On the downside: “The scary part is the grasses and the shrubs that are growing like crazy now, once they dry up in the fall they become flashier fuel for fire, so that’s a concern.”
And that becomes a bigger worry if the weather takes a turn toward drought.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says El Niño conditions that were partially responsible for last winter’s dumping have subsided and there aren’t many signs of a La Niña, like the one that parched the area in the 2017-18 winter. But meteorologists say you can’t predict very far out when one of the two effects will emerge.

As a reminder, an El Niño is caused by warmer-than-usual surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, while La Niña sees colder-than-average surface temperatures. According to NOAA, El Niño’s effects include:

• warmer-than-average temperatures over western and central Canada and over the western and northern United States;

• wetter-than-average conditions over portions of the U.S. Gulf Coast and Florida;

• and drier-than-average conditions in the Ohio Valley and the Pacific Northwest.

A La Niña causes the opposite effects, including warmer weather in the Southeast and cooler weather in the Northwest.

Kyle Fredin, meteorologist with the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Boulder, says those two effects tend to play out a little strangely in Colorado because it’s in the middle of the country. Generally, La Niñas tend to dry out southern Colorado while El Niños bring snow and rain.

Kyle Mozley, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pueblo, notes that weather is never just impacted by El Niño/La Niña. Meteorologists also look at other oscillations, and even waves on the north coast of Africa, to determine the coming weather.

Remember the “polar vortex,” Mozley asks? That actually happens every year.

Some might worry that odd weather in Colorado — from that huge shift in precipitation over two years to standout events like a recent record-sized hailstone and a tornado in Black Forest — signal that climate change, and its erratic weather patterns, have arrived. But meteorologists say its tough to determine what’s attributable to changes in climate and what’s just Colorado being Colorado.

Mozley says one noticeable change that is attributable to climate is that, “our [normal temperatures] now are not what they used to be 10, 20 years ago.”

Colorado is hotter. Schumacher says that increased temperatures exacerbate drought conditions and water shortages, along with fires and floods. Those are the biggest concerns in Colorado as the climate changes, he says.

But Fredin notes that it’s tough to associate single events with climate change because modern weather data collection really only began in the 1950s. And then there’s the fact that storm chasers capture nearly every storm these days, compared with even 20 years ago when many went undocumented.

“I wish,” he says, “We had 500 years of data with the type of sensors we have today.”

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