Snowpack totals not as good as they might sound ~ Aspen Daily News

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Mount Sopris towers above Carbondale, still covered in white on Monday. Snowpack totals for the Upper Colorado Headwaters’ region, which includes the entire Roaring Fork Valley, were slightly below average as of March 28. Molly Briggs/Aspen Daily News

Snowpack totals in the Upper Colorado Headwaters Basin were 96% of “normal” on Monday — which to some people might sound pretty good, and understandably so. 

Roaring Fork Conservancy Director of Community Outreach Christina Medved knows all too well how some snowpack measurements, especially the favorable-sounding ones like “100% of normal,” can be easily misconstrued.

At a recent event in Aspen, Medved recalled telling the audience how local snowpack conditions, at least at the time, were 113% of normal.

A map shows the different snowpack totals for various basins, including the Upper Colorado Headwaters, and their corresponding snowpack totals. Screenshot National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) website

Medved’s announcement generated significant applause, at least until she provided further context.

“A hundred percent of normal is average,” Medved said Monday. “That’s the way it needs to be understood.”

Medved likened 100% of normal, or average snowpack conditions, to earning a C in school — not an A-plus. Medved also pointed out how snowpack levels today were compared against those from only the last 30 years.

“We know that we’ve been getting less precipitation, and we’ve been getting warmer as the years have gone on,” Medved said. “Everything upstream of Lake Powell right now, regarding snowpack, is only 88% of normal.” 

No stranger to warmer and drier conditions, the Roaring Fork Valley and its surrounding areas have faced increasingly high fire danger each summer. 

In 2018, the Lake Christine Fire burned over 12,000 acres near Basalt in Eagle County and in 2020 the Grizzly Creek Fire charred over 32,000 acres in Glenwood Canyon.

Both were human caused. 

“We get some of the pushback on the (percent of) normal,” Lucas Boyer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Grand Junction, said Monday concerning its use of the word normal. “The climate-normal period is always 30 years for us.”

In other words, when assessing snowpack conditions today, meteorologists, like Boyer, compare them to measurements from a 30-year period, which updates every 10 years. 

The current climate-normal period extends from 1991 to 2020.

“There are so many people moving here that don’t understand the climate that they’ve moved to,” Medved said. “It is a semi-arid environment that’s becoming more and more arid as every year goes by.”

While snowpack totals in the Upper Colorado Headwaters Basin, which includes the entire Roaring Fork Valley, were slightly below normal Monday, in the Gunnison Basin farther south, they were 104% of normal. 

Statewide, snowpack conditions were 92% of their median levels, according to Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) data. 

“We stay consistent with that language,” Boyd said. “When we say ‘normal,’ we’re referring to that climate-normal period.”

Aspen Skiing Co. President and CEO Mike Kaplan, who announced his pending retirement from his current post at the helm last week, said in an interview with the Aspen Daily News on Thursday that, after 30 years with the resort company, he too has seen recent winter seasons increasingly punctuated with weather extremes.

“Climate change is upon us. And you see it — we see it here every year, just more extreme variability,” Kaplan said. “California, they basically had one storm. I think that’s the challenge: how to adapt to it, and adaptability is reality.”

Even heading into the spring season, the Roaring Fork Valley is experiencing high levels of variability. Despite sunshine and temperatures in the 60s over the weekend in Aspen, a winter weather advisory went into effect at 7:32 p.m. Monday, according to The Weather Channel, which predicted a 78% chance of snow overnight.  

Boyer also said Aspen could see between 2 to 4 inches of snow on Tuesday.

“It’s going to be all day … off and on,” Boyer said. “Most of this kicks off after 4 a.m. So, (Aspen) will be cool enough by then that it’s going to be mostly snow.”

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