‘Weather whiplash’ leads to low February snowfall totals at Summit County ski areas

Bruce Ruff of Arvada skis 6 inches of fresh snow Feb. 23 at Loveland Ski Area, which got 25 inches of total snowfall last month, its worst February in at least seven years.
Dustin Schaefer/Loveland Ski Area

As Summit County heads into a warm-weather week, snowfall at area ski resorts remains sparse, reflecting the yearslong drought that’s affecting Colorado’s Western Slope.

All of the county’s ski resorts had significantly less snowfall in February than in recent years. At Breckenridge Ski Resort, 29 inches fell over the course of the month, with over one-third of that coming in the final week of February, according to OpenSnow. Official resort numbers put Breckenridge’s base depth at 50 inches. A year ago, base depth was 48 inches, and February snowfall was 58 inches, double what it was this year.

Copper Mountain Resort’s February snowfall was 23 inches, a considerable drop compared to 2021’s total of 56 inches. However, this year’s base depth currently sits at 52 inches, which is over a foot deeper than 2021’s total of 37 inches. At Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, last month’s snowfall total was 18.25 inches, 37% less than 2021’s end-of-the-month tally. Despite the snowfall decrease, the base depth is actually deeper compared to the same time last year: 48 inches then compared to 56 inches now.

Keystone Resort saw its worst February in the past seven years. Last month, Keystone’s snowfall reached only half of what it had in the same month in 2021. Just over the Continental Divide from Summit County, Loveland Ski Area is seeing a similar trend with its snowfall levels.

The Colorado River District hosted state water experts last week to talk about water year 2022, which runs from October through September. Jeffrey Deems, co-founder and chief technical officer of Airborne Snow Observatories, said that this water year has had a “feast or famine” sequence. Much of Colorado’s Western Slope experienced snowfall in October, immediately followed by a dry spell that lasted until late December. Snow in recent weeks has brought up those levels slightly, but the western part of the state is still below average.

“It’s been a bit of a roller coaster this year,” Deems said. “We started out with some early snow that got everyone excited to ski back in October. … Then (snowfall) kind of shut down for a while, and in early December, things weren’t looking so hot — with headlines like ‘Grim future for Western water.’ Then all of a sudden, with a series of pretty powerful storms late in the year, all of the headlines switched to be ecstatic about how far above average we were. As the year progressed, it’s been a bit dry for most of the Western Slope in January, to the point now where we’ve been starting to look at things and go, ‘Wow, is it going to snow again?'”

February snowfall at Summit County ski areas.
Nicole Miller/Summit Daily News

Currently, the snow-water equivalent for the Blue River Basin is just under the 30-year median, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. As of Feb. 28 (the latest available data), the basin’s snow-water equivalent has stayed steady at 11.7 inches, whereas the 30-year median is 11.8 inches. Snow-water equivalent is a measurement used by hydrologists and water managers to gauge the amount of liquid water contained within the snowpack. In other words, it is the amount of water that will be released from the snowpack when it melts.

“We can have slowly increasing water equivalents across the state but dropping percents of normal. We’re not accumulating fast enough to be keeping pace with the slope of the normal accumulation,” Deems said. “That’s why we can see drops in percent of normal even if you look at individual (snow telemetry) sites, and you’ll see slight increases over this time period.”

According to the River District’s most recent hydrology report, this year can best be described as a “weather whiplash.” A record dry November across the West followed by snow dumps in December and January highlight “extreme weather behavior and frequently changing expectation,” the report reads.

“Even the precipitation from East to West within the state of Colorado has experienced significant realignments,” the report continues.

Across the whole Upper Colorado River headwaters, data shows that snow-water equivalent for the region is at 99% of normal. In early January, the same area was at 127% of normal — before February’s dry spell.

OpenSnow meteorologist Sam Collentine reported Monday, Feb. 28, that there won’t be much change in the weather for ski areas through Thursday, March 3. Daytime temperatures are expected to be in the 30s and 40s as the week progresses, and there’s potential for snowfall on and off throughout the upcoming weekend.

The snow-water equivalent in the Blue River Basin is in line with the historical median, but it will need to climb quickly into the spring to keep pace.
Natural Resources Conservation Service/Courtesy chart

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