Researchers tie declining snowpack in Colorado’s mountains to climate change |

Researchers tie declining snowpack in Colorado’s mountains to climate change

Grizzly Peak's west facing slope blanketed in snow, seen on Wednesday, Dec. 26, near Dillon.
Hugh Carey /

It’s been a great winter in Summit County. Storms have been coming in regular and heavy, the fluffy stuff has been sticking around and the metrics prove that this winter’s snowfall is doing at least twice as well as last year’s.

Unfortunately, recently released research reveals that today’s snowpack has declined by 41 percent over 13 percent of Western land area — mainly in the Colorado River Basin mountain ranges — between 1982 and 2016.

Researchers revealed their findings at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting on Dec. 13. One of the research papers conducted by University of Arizona also attributed that decline to climate change and the effect it is having on Western seasonal patterns.

A different study presented at the conference found that fall is lasting longer and summer is starting earlier, leaving much less time for the right temperature and precipitation conditions required for snow to fall on the mountains. Winter is being squeezed out.

“Our winters are getting sick,” that study’s author, Amato Evan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, said at the conference.

The Arizona Daily Star, which first reported the research findings, pointed out that the 41 percent overall snowpack decline is the equivalent of losing 7.17 million square acre-feet of water. That is enough to supply drinking water to the cities of Tucson and Phoenix for four years.

Even with the snow in the High Country, Summit County is still in a drought, along with much of the rest of the state and the Western U.S. Due to the federal government shutdown, the NOAA is not updating the national drought monitor, and so the severity of the drought is unclear.

The lack of snow, while a problem itself in ski country, has also been tied to the summer headaches here, too. The Daily Star cited a second study presented at the conference that found a clear link between declining snowpack and wildfires, particularly in high-altitude environments like Summit.

“We’re 95 percent confident there’s a significant relationship between wildfire and snowpack,” study author and PhD student Donal O’Leary said at the conference.

Another study presented at the AGU conference found that the declining snow phenomenon is global, but in different ways.

Snowfall has been declining by 4 percent per decade in certain key high-mountain areas, such as in Tibet and northern Canada. However, snowfall has actually been increasing at a rate of 2 percent in parts of the Southern Hemisphere, such as the oceans around Antarctica.

Looking to the more immediate forecast, meteorologist Joel Gratz sees the next storm front coming through town Thursday into Friday, with the chance of another storm blowing through on New Year’s Eve. However, Gratz does not see either storm producing much powder even if they arrive due to colder temperatures and low moisture.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that researchers found the snowpack has declined by 41 percent over 13 percent of Western land area. The decline was not measured over the entire Rocky Mountain region.

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