Colorado finished the 2019-20 winter in generally healthy shape. While it was far from the historically snowy winter of 2018-19, enough snow fell that it should’ve helped keep soils and vegetation damp deep into summer, potentially heeding off the worst of fire weather concerns.
But then Colorado’s snow started to melt at an unusually fast clip, and it hasn’t stopped. That could have big consequences for this summer and potentially beyond.
As of Thursday’s update from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Colorado’s statewide snowpack was only at about 70% of average, a sharp decline from a winter that mainly featured snowpack levels of around or slightly above 100% figures.
A warm spring rapidly melted snow starting in late April, putting the state on pace to lose basically all of its snowpack within the next two weeks. That’s slightly quicker than usual — Colorado’s snowpack didn’t fully melt off last year until mid-July, for instance — and could lead to an array of issues later this summer.
This year’s rapid snowmelt could, in particular, have consequences for increasing fire danger later this summer and into early fall. The earlier soils dry, the more prone they usually are to windy, dry and hot weather and the potential for wildfires.
The snowpack isn’t the only factor increasing the wildfire risk. Statewide drought levels continue to grow, with more than a quarter of Colorado under an “extreme” drought, according to the official United States Drought Monitor update from Thursday. That number has continued to increase in recent weeks, and statewide, 63% of Colorado is experiencing some degree of drought conditions.
A combination of a lack of snowmelt and a recent warm stretch also coincide with one of Colorado’s typically driest stretches of the year. Late June and into July is the in-between point from big low-pressure systems, prevalent during springtime, to the monsoon-driven rains of mid- to late summer and early fall.
— CO Flood Updates (@COFloodUpdates) June 11, 2020
The drought figures are shaded heavily toward southern Colorado, with the worst of the drought across south-central and southeastern parts of the state. Denver is not officially in a drought, though the city is currently considered to be “abnormally dry” by the drought monitor.
Unfortunately, the rapid statewide snowmelt is unlikely to help.
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