Local snowpack ‘just above average’ for most of season as peak snowpack is about a month away
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Snowpack around Steamboat Springs has been tracking just above average for most of the season, said Joel Gratz, founding meteorologist with OpenSnow.
Thursday’s springlike weather likely did some serious melting at lower elevations, but at higher elevations it’s not melting as much as it’s consolidating, according to local meteorologist Mike Weissbluth of snowalarm.com.
“The air is getting squashed out of the snow due to weight of the snowpack, but it is maintaining its liquid content, and therefore occupying less depth,” Weissbluth said.
For the next couple days, the temperatures will continue to warm, he said.
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It’s solar input, or direct exposure to the sun, that actually has more of an impact on melting than temperature, said Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director of the Colorado River District.
On March 5, the snow water equivalent in Northwest Colorado was at 114% of average, according to data from the Natural Resource Conservation Service Snotel.
Gratz said his numbers are closer to 120%.
In the southwestern corner of the state, the snow water equivalent is between 88% and 95% of average.
February was a big month for snow, with a snowpack growth of 44% above average, Gratz said.
December and January were also above average, he said, “which is about as good as you can hope for for the meat of winter.”
Ellen Bonnifield, a local weather observer in Yampa for the National Weather Service, said she’d recorded 38.8 inches of snow in February, and 122 inches for the season. The average for the whole season in Yampa is about 118.9 inches, she said.
In the more than 25 years she’s been an observer, Bonnifield said this February was second only to 1996, when she recorded 40.5 inches for the month.
A Snotel telemetry site maintained by the Conservation Service on Rabbit Ears Pass, at an elevation of 9,400 feet, recorded a snow depth of 71 inches as of March 5, and a snow water equivalent of 22.7 inches. Snow depth at the Tower telemetry site, which has a 10,500 feet elevation on Buffalo Pass, was at 110 inches, with 39.4 inches of snow water equivalent.
On average, Buffalo Pass is one of the three snowiest spots in the state, Gratz said. The other is near Wolf Creek, he said, and the third is between Aspen and Crested Butte.
The moisture the snow brings is critical across all seasons, Gratz noted, because it accounts for 50% to 80% of the region’s annual moisture.
Even the snowiest spots in Colorado only produce year-round snow water equivalent to somewhere like New York City, he said. “Colorado in general has much less precipitation than areas east of the Mississippi River.”
At the Lynx Pass telemetry site, with an elevation of 8,880 feet, the snow depth was 42 inches with 12.1 inches of snow water equivalent as of March 5. The Bear River site, at 9,080 feet in elevation located south of Yampa in the Flat Tops area, had a recorded snow depth of 41 inches, with 10.6 inches of snow water equivalent.
Peak snowpack is considered at the first or second weekend in April, Pokrandt said.
As the beginning of the runoff season nears in April, Pokrandt said, the forecast for runoff in the Yampa River at Maybell is estimated to be 108% of average.
It is still about a month away from numbers that will tell a more meaningful story about snowpack and runoff, he said. The amount of moisture already in the soil before the first snow falls has an impact on the runoff amounts. First, the snow melts into the ground, then it runs off into the streams and rivers.
In general across the west, Pokrandt said, the soil is on the drier side this year, due to a monsoon season — July and August — that was a “nonsoon” season.
Snowpack and the moisture it brings is truly “liquid gold,” Gratz said. Of course there’s the benefit of a good ski year, but snowpack also translates into “the health of rivers, the bounty of agriculture and the filling of the reservoirs.”
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