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Avalanche danger expected to be high after storm brings heavy snow

Avalanche danger in the mountains around Steamboat Springs is expected to elevate this weekend as a series of winter storms could bring multiple feet of snow and wind gusts up to 50 mph, making conditions ripe for slides.

There have been just two avalanches observed in the Steamboat and Flat Tops region so far this winter, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

But agency Director Ethan Greene said the combination of snow already on the ground and new snow expected to fall starting Thursday, Dec. 23, will heighten the risk starting Friday, Dec. 24.



“We’re looking at probably a level 4 (high risk). In Steamboat it may actually be a little bit later than some of the other areas,” Greene said. “It is definitively something that people should be thinking about all weekend and potentially into next week.”

Heavy snow starting Thursday is expected to elevate avalanche risk to level 4 high risk as soon as Friday.
National Weather Service/Courtesy graphic

Mike Weissbluth, a local meteorologist who runs SnowAlarm.com, said the coming storm is currently hitting the West Coast, where it has formed an atmospheric river, which has significantly increased the amount of moisture in the system.



“It’s bringing very wet weather into the coast, and it’s going to bring it over our area for Thursday night through Friday night,” Weissbluth said. “Really, the question is not which days is it going to snow, it’s which days are we not going to have snow once it starts on Thursday.”

Overall, the system isn’t expected to be that cold, so while the top of Mount Werner could see close to 2 feet of snow, the valley floor could struggle to accumulate much at all. When the front moves over Thursday, most precipitation will change into snow, but there is a chance it will be more of a rain-snow mix in town.

A large natural avalanche is outlined in red off of Parkview Mountain, near Willow Creek Pass, in the Steamboat Flat Tops region on Monday, Dec. 20. This is good example of slopes that are starting to become connected with the addition of new snow.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center/courtesy photo

Because of the atmospheric river, Weissbluth said the storm has a moisture content about three to four times higher than what is typical in the atmosphere for December. Warmer temperatures are what will limit snowfall, he said.

“The snow quality is not going to be like a northwest storm, it’s going to be denser, heavier snow,” Weissbluth said. “Avalanche conditions, my guess is they’re going to be pretty ugly.”

The moist snow will be heavier, sitting on top of less dense snow from a relatively dry early season, which Weissbluth said he suspects will lead to several natural avalanches. Winds are expected to gust up to 50 mph, as well likely creating drifts that could trigger a slide as well.

Greene said avalanche conditions are a measure not only of the weather that day, but of all the weather that winter and how it has affected the snowpack. Weather so far this fall has made for a weak underlying snowpack, especially on northern slopes.

“We’re going to get a pretty rapid load on top of that,” Greene said. “Heavy snow and lots of wind through the weekend and that’s going to produce avalanches.”


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