Colorado’s snowpack is melting at a ‘ridiculous’ rate

Colorado didn’t see enough snow this winter to fully recover from the ongoing megadrought and now what snow the state did see is melting too quickly, experts say.

“If we continue on at the rate we’re at we’re looking at probably a complete meltout by the end of May or beginning of June,” Becky Bolinger, of the Colorado Climate Center, told The Denver Post.

That’s too soon. By several weeks, she said. So drought conditions are likely to worsen, exacerbating what officials are anticipating could be the worst wildfire year in Colorado’s history.

Already fire restrictions appear to be more common than normal. And experts have questioned whether Colorado is prepared for another devastating wildfire like the Marshall Fire, which burned through a record number of homes and businesses in December.

As an example of the melt out, Bollinger pointed to the San Juan Mountains in the southwest corner of the state. The snow there has been melting at a “ridiculous” rate, she said.

“They should still have about 8.5 inches of snowpack,” Bollinger said. “And they’re at 2 (inches).”

Mountains in northern Colorado are faring a little better, Bollinger said, but ultimately the earlier melt out means that water will be absorbed quickly by the parched soils or evaporated. More drawn-out melt outs, which usually last until mid-June, stretch the water supply more efficiently, recharging the state’s dry waterways and plant life.

Windy and sunny conditions in April, combined with low humidity levels led to high levels of evapotranspiration, Russ Schumacher, director of the Colorado Climate Center, told a group of climatologists Tuesday morning. That amounts to a “thirsty atmosphere,” which forces surface water to evaporate further.

As snow melts, some of the state’s waterways — like the Colorado, Gunnison, Rio Grande and San Juan rivers — might see a short-lived uptick but ultimately below-average flows in water, Bollinger said. The severity of those conditions will depend on whether Colorado sees more colder temperatures and additional snow in the coming weeks.

“And neither of those are on the horizon,” Bollinger said.

The melt out also comes on the heels of an extremely dry April, which set records along much of the Eastern Plains, Zach Schwalbe, manager of the Colorado Agricultural Meteorological Network, said in the group climatologist discussion.

Not only does the lack of moisture and early melt out increase the risk for wildfires across the state but it also cuts into Colorado’s $47 billion agricultural industry.

Looking at current trends Bollinger anticipated that the state’s drought conditions will only worsen heading into the summer.

“I hope that I am wrong but that is my expectation,” she said.

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This story was originally published May 10, 2022 2:49 PM.

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