With return of snow comes avalanche risk; more snowfall forecast for Tuesday | SteamboatToday.com

With return of snow comes avalanche risk; more snowfall forecast for Tuesday

Bella, the dog, leads Jim Sunderland, Eva and Skip Batson during a snowshoeing adventure on Rabbit Ears Pass on Friday, Oct. 15.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Steamboat Springs woke up to nearly five inches of snow on the ground Oct. 13, meaning this year’s first measurable snowfall in town came about two weeks earlier than it did last year.

But climate data from the National Weather Service shows it wasn’t significantly early or late. Though data is not available for all years, over the past 20 years on average, the first snowfall in Steamboat has come around Oct. 8, with the earliest snowfall coming on Sept. 21, 2004.

Steamboat has tallied about 6.7 inches of snow so far, and local meteorologist Mike Weissbluth said more is likely to fall Monday evening into Tuesday, bringing a little over an inch in town, with a more expected at higher elevations.

“We have another quick moving system coming across,” Weissbluth said. “Right now, it is in the Gulf of Alaska, looks to make landfall tonight, and it is a cold system.”

Models have been uncertain, but it looks to pass close enough to bring favorable precipitation and get into the area’s typically productive northwest flow. Because of this, Weissbluth said he expects to add another three inches near the top of Mount Werner.

Ahead of the storm, Monday is expected to be another warmer, clear day, with highs near 60 degrees. After the storm passes, the latter half of the week looks to be relatively clear as well, though highs may not see the 60s again.

The early snow has some seasoned backcountry enthusiasts grumbling that it could lead to persistent weak layer and increased avalanche risk long into the season.

“If I had to guess, I’m thinking the north facing stuff is probably going to stay, and it’s probably going to hound us the rest of the season,” Weissbluth said.

Even though it is early in the season, and there isn’t a lot of snow yet, Mike Cooperstein, the lead forecaster in the northern mountains region for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, wrote Friday that avalanches are still possible wherever there is any snow on a steep slope.

Still, avalanche risk across the state is low, and the center won’t ramp up daily regional forecasts until Nov. 1.

Snow on south-facing slopes and at lower elevations has largely melted, Cooperstein said. North or east facing slopes where snow hasn’t melted are the most likely places for a slide.

“In general, you should consider the consequences of being caught in an avalanche before you cross any steep, snow-covered slope,” Cooperstein wrote.

Fall snow is generally shallow. Weissbluth said he estimates areas of Buffalo Pass got about a foot of snow, with less falling farther south towards Rabbit Ears Pass. Steamboat Resort’s Powder Cam showed about five inches of new snow Sunday afternoon.

Snow melting now is the best outcome in terms of the season’s long-term avalanche risk. In these area where it does, the snowpack will be able to grow from the ground up when snowfall becomes more consistent.

In areas without direct sun, the temperature gradient in the snow can vary a wide range, with near the ground at about 32 degrees and the top of the snow often much colder. This temperature variance promotes the creation of faceting, or a layer that collapses when there is a larger load of snow on top.

These areas have a greater risk to slide after more snow has accumulated on top. The avalanche center suggests taking a picture of where snow persists in the early season to signal areas that may have a greater avalanche risk in the early months of the season.

“The most useful images are those taken just before the season’s snow accumulates, when you can see the distribution of any persistent old snow,” the center wrote on a post about early season snow.

For areas where snow is unlikely to melt, the best thing that could happen is for more to fall.

“Once we have snow on the ground that is likely to stick around, the more quickly and deeper we can accumulate more snow, the better in the long run,” the center wrote. “We’re hoping for a snowpack deep enough that temperature gradients aren’t high enough to promote faceting/weakening of the snow on the ground.”

Weissbluth said there are a series of storms lining up for the Steamboat area next week, though it is far too early to predict how much they will bring.

“Every day, the later we get snow, the more likely it’s going to hang around,” Weissbluth said. “I’d say, this could be our best last week to enjoy fall weather.”

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