What kind of snow year will it be in Steamboat Springs this year? Climate experts share perspectives
As leaves are changing colors, temperatures are cooling and winter sports seasons are on the horizon, Routt County residents may be asking themselves if the 2021-22 winter will bring much-needed snow to drought-stricken Northwest Colorado.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we may see a good winter, but that’s really just hopeful guessing at this point,” said Mike Weissbluth, a local meteorologist who operates snowalarm.com.
Weissbluth said his snow outlook comes from the higher amounts of sea ice across the Northern Hemisphere.
While he emphasized that correlation is not causation, Weissbluth said three cold air outbreaks where air traveled from the North Pole into the Bering Sea then brought storms into Routt County in previous years.
“I’ve noticed these cold air outbreaks that we’ve seen in the last few years, and coincidentally, we’ve seen more sea ice, so perhaps they’re connected,” Weissbluth added.
Though the Yampa Valley has seen precipitation and cooling temperatures during the last month, most of Routt County is still experiencing extreme drought, the second-most severe form of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
He agreed it is far too early to make any definitive calls on what this year’s snowpack will look like, but Russ Schumaker, director of the Colorado Climate Center and associate professor of climate at Colorado State University, said the La Nina pattern, which occurs on the Pacific Coast and typically brings more moisture to the northern United States and less to the southern, may have impacts on Northern Colorado.
“As we get a little closer to winter, sometimes those signals come into a bit more clarity, but we’re not there at this point,” Schumaker said. “Still, that’s the indicator that kind of gives us the most info at this stage.”
Schumaker said while La Nina weather typically brings more moisture, that pattern did not hold up last winter, which was a La Nina year but delivered low snow and warmer temperatures than normal.
“In a typical La Nina winter, that would be a good sign for snow in the northern mountains in the Steamboat area,” Schumaker said.
La Nina patterns usually bring more moisture in the beginning of the winter season and less in late winter and early spring, but Schumaker said the opposite held true for much of northern Colorado in 2020 and 2021.
Erin Walter, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, which forecasts for much of the Western Slope, said outlooks show northern Colorado has an equal chance for having either more or less snow than normal this winter.
“La Nina typically has a huge signature in the desert and southern U.S., but Colorado kind of falls in an equal chance area where there really isn’t a strong signal,” Walter said. “There’s not a strong trend for either more or less snow here in Colorado.”
Schumaker said climate scientists agree that on average, temperatures will continue warming and snow packs will be lighter each year.
“There is not a ton of reason for optimism, unfortunately,” Schumaker said. “It may not be that every summer is hotter than the previous one, but as we go up, what we perceive as hot may not feel all that hot in 10 to 20 years.”
Madison Muxworthy, soil moisture, water and snow program manager at the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, said even if Routt County receives more snow than normal this year, it will likely not be enough to pull the area out of drought and replenish the Yampa River.
“With our soil moisture deficit, we currently still need more than 12 inches of precipitation in the majority of our watershed in order for our soils to be back to normal again,“ Muxworthy said.
In previous years, snowpack flowed into the Yampa River and carried the river’s health through the summer and fall, but because temperatures have been so warm, Muxworthy said drying soils have required more snow over the last few years so less has reached the river.
“From my perspective, that’s really important going into this winter season is we’re coming into it with an extreme soil deficit,” Muxworthy said.
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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The Colorado River Water Conservation District board of directors approved a request to partially fund the permitting costs for a dam and reservoir project in northwest Colorado.