Seeds of drought relief in the air for winter |

Seeds of drought relief in the air for winter

There has never been a more important snow season in Summit County than the upcoming one.

Usually, hopes for a big winter center around dreams of powder. This year, it’s much more important than that.

With each passing week this offseason, the dryness has become more inescapable. Lake Dillon has slowly morphed into an archipelago, and waves of wildfire smoke have intermittently hovered over the county.

Now, with the end of an immensely taxing fire season in sight and water restrictions in place, the drought is part of our daily thoughts, conversations and lives. So is a heightened hope for a good snow season, because it’s not just the quality of skiing at stake this time, it’s people’s livelihoods. Many of the county’s problems, from the economy, to water to fire danger, will be either eased or exacerbated based on what happens this winter.

But even the biggest of winters will only put us on the road to drought recovery. And if we reach May 2003 without at least an average snowpack, next summer will be a parched version of this summer. Unthinkable.

The hard part is there’s no way to know what the winter will bring. But there are clues.

For starters, global warming is no longer a theory, it’s a fact of everyone’s life. On average, it’s warmer, and it doesn’t take a thermometer to notice it.

What this warmer world will do to the snowpack is a source of debate.

On one hand, the snow season figures to get shorter, with earlier runoff in the spring. On the other, storms stand to become more vigorous.

Scientists agree that with increased warmth comes more evaporation, which means more moisture in the atmosphere, which means stronger storms and more precipitation.

“If it’s a little warmer, the atmosphere can hold more moisture, and it can enhance the snowfall,” said Kevin Trenberth of the National Center of Atmospheric Research in Boulder.

So the theory is that, over time, we may see shorter but more intense winters.

Not only will storms be invigorated by global warming, they also will be helped by a planned cloud seeding program set to start this year in Summit County. The effectiveness of seeding clouds is unproven, but Vail swears by it. Hopefully, these two factors will combine to beef up the storms that come through.

Then there’s El Nino. He’s back, although not as strong as in 1997-98, when local resorts were slightly below average. Other weak El Nino years have produced some well-below-average winters. For example, at Copper, where the average annual snowfall is 280 inches, the weak El Nino of ’72-’73 produced 197 inches and the ’91-’92 El Nino brought 194 inches. In ’82-’83, also a weak El Nino, it snowed a bit above average – 292.

Last year wasn’t that bad at Copper – 226 inches fell. It was the lowest total in 10 years, but the 30-year record shows eight years were worse. Other local resorts were hit harder. Loveland got only 238 inches, about 54 percent of its 440-inch, 10-year average.

Trying to predict seasonal weather is like trying to predict the stock market, and unfortunately, both seem to be tanking at the same time. This hasn’t happened since the much-romanticized drought/depression/dust bowl of the 1930s. And while no one envisions packing up the family and wheeling out to California in a Grapes-of-Wrath-esque panic, people are genuinely worried.

A turnaround is needed. Just imagine the county-wide sigh of relief that will ensue if it snows like we all know it can this season.

Jason Starr can be reached at (970) 668-3998 Ext. 231 or at

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