Colorado’s snowpack is melting faster than usual this spring

Thanks to a recent spike in temperatures, Colorado’s snowpack has melted unusually quickly in recent weeks. That could mean long-term ramifications for fires this summer and possibly further exasperate drought conditions across much of Colorado.

Over the last two weeks, Colorado has lost nearly half of its snowpack, an unusually rapid decline owing to a recent run of warm temperatures and a chilly start to April. After snow and record-breaking cold temperatures kept snowpack levels relatively steady through the first part of April (including multiple rounds of Front Range snowfall), the weather pattern changed quickly.

By the latter half of April, record highs were being set across wide swaths of Colorado.

On April 19th, almost all of Colorado’s snowpack was still intact, based on statewide averaged data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). That had statewide snowpack slightly above average, or at about the 60th percentile of the 30-year climatological average.

Now, less than three weeks later, about 40 percent of Colorado’s snowpack had already melted away. As of Thursday, NRCS data had statewide snowpack only at the 25th percentile of the 30-year average.

While spring is snowmelt season, there’s little question that the mountains have lost their snow especially quickly this spring.

“What is unusual about this (season) is it’s come out pretty quick here. We’ve lost a lot of snowpack,” said David Barjenbruch, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Boulder.

While the quick snowmelt will fill up reservoirs earlier than usual, it could also dry out ground more quickly.

On Thursday, the new official drought monitor update placed more than 60 percent of Colorado in drought conditions. Additionally, more than 75 percent of the state is now considered to be “abnormally dry”. Recent drier weather coupled with a rapidly melting snowpack could lead to increased fire danger, particularly across southern Colorado.

“Those (fire concerns) would be focused in southern Colorado, but as the season matures and we dry the snow out,” Barjenbruch said. “You can never guarantee we’re never going to have a bad fire season or a decent one.”

Statewide, Colorado finished with a slightly above average season in terms of snowpack. The snowpack, though, was generally higher in the northern half of the state. Last summer was quite dry across southern Colorado, where drought conditions are continuing to grow.

One bit of good news: Thanks to of the relatively dry weather of late, the rapid snowmelt probably won’t lead to any significant flood issues. Typically, heavy rain events need to couple with rapid snowmelt to lead to higher-end flood events.

“Usually the snow melt is in a fairly organized manner, but it has been accelerated over the last few days,” Barjenbruch said. “Normally, if you don’t add on a lot of rainfall, you won’t see a ton of flooding other than a few typical spots.”

But in the near-term, the quickly melting snowpack will be closely watched for increasing fire danger and expanding drought conditions later this spring and summer, especially across southern Colorado.

“It’s something here in Colorado that we’re always on the look out for,” Barjenbruch said.

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