This winter is the wettest on record for the contiguous United States
The past two winters have certainly been a tale of two seasons. Despite the dry season last year, the 2018-19 winter is officially the record-holder for most precipitation in the history of the contiguous United States.
The National Centers for Environmental Information, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, released a report this week revealing that strong precipitation from coast to coast resulted in the wettest December to February span — which is what the NOAA designates as “winter” — since record-keeping began.
The Lower 48’s winter precipitation total was 9.01 inches, which is 2.22 inches above average and the most precipitation dropped in a single winter, beating the 1997-98 winter by two-hundredths of an inch. February 2019 was narrowly beaten out by February 1998 for wettest February ever recorded by only a tenth of an inch.
The strong precipitation was notably felt with record or near-record rainfall or snow in the Tennessee and Ohio valleys in the mid-south, the Great Lakes region, northern plains and the Northwest, but Colorado’s mountains have also had above-average precipitation going into March.
Somewhat ironically, temperatures in the Lower 48 have actually been a bit above average across the country, at 33.4 degrees Fahrenheit. That is 1.2 degrees above average and ranks in the warmest third of the past 125 years. That is somewhat offset by the fact that February was colder than average at 32 degrees, 1.8 degrees below average and in the coldest third of recorded history.
In Colorado, the winter’s wet bounty has been pretty apparent. Even though there’s a long way to go to make up for previous deficits, drought has lessened in severity across the state.
Summit County is now experiencing a “moderate drought” and 58 percent of the state is still experiencing some form of drought. That is a far cry better than last summer, when over 80 percent of the state was experiencing drought. Record water deficits, especially in southwestern Colorado, led to one of the worst wildfire seasons in memory.
As far as the stuff that Summiters care about the most, snowpack totals are very healthy in the county and across the state. The Upper Colorado River Basin is seeing snowpack at 132 percent of the median, while statewide snowpack is 129 percent of median.
The ski resorts are certainly happy with the snowbound late winter and early spring. Breckenridge Ski Resort has been the king of the pow in the county, reporting 81 inches of snow over the past seven days. Keystone and Copper are reporting getting 65 and 63 inches over the past seven days.
Despite the great news about snow, avalanches remain a serious concern in the High Country. Historic avalanche conditions set off hundreds of small and large avalanches across the state in the first week of March, with several fatalities recorded in the backcountry.
At the moment, Vail and Summit County are still under an avalanche warning, with “high” avalanche danger above, at and below tree line. The combination of heavy snow and warming temperatures is leaving a very fragile snowpack on the mountains on the verge of crumbling.
As has been the case for the past week, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center strongly recommends against any travel on or near avalanche terrain. “Exceptional” avalanches in the area have exceeded historic runouts, spreading across valley floors farther than ever before and making the snow slides even more dangerous.
“Do not try and second-guess these conditions,” the CAIC stated in their Saturday morning update for the Vail and Summit region. “Any human-triggered avalanche will be massive and hard to survive.”
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