Scientists look to Colorado to improve snowpack science in a warming climate

Posted at 10:02 PM, Apr 17, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-18 00:06:30-04

DENVER – Colorado is looking at average snowpack for this time of year, but the mild winter has made scientists nervous.

"We were really concerned about the lack of snow going into December, after two months of warm, dry weather," Brian Domonkos, Snow Survey Supervisor at the National Resources Conservation Service told Denver7.

The Colorado high country had well below average snowpack for the first two and half months of the snow season, and ski resorts were delaying their openings. The forecast for January called for a switch in the weather pattern. Colorado needed something big to get out of trouble.

"Through the end of January, it was a complete rescue and then some. It came back, and it came back with flying colors." Domonkos said it was a record breaking dry spell, followed by a record breaking January, that brought the snowpack levels as high as 152% of average. Then a warm, dry March dropped the numbers back down to average, and drew the attention of some of the nation’s top snow scientists.

"We could potentially have a shift from high rates of melt to slower melt," said Keith Musselman, a hydrologist with NCAR in Boulder.

Musselman and his team of hydrologists recently published research showing that early season snowmelt might not mean that runoff water just gets to reservoirs sooner, but rather it could get intercepted along the way. Musselman says warm, dry springs will likely slow the flow of that melt, leaving it more susceptible to evaporation and absorption by plants.

"It requires a certain amount of water to fill up cracks and divots and depressions before you have water connect, and then create the stream flow," Musselman said.

With a booming population in Colorado and the western United States, it is becoming more and more important to know exactly how much water is in our snowpack, and when it will reach our reservoirs. It’s so important, in fact, that NASA is in the Colorado high country trying to find a better technique to measure it.

The SnowEx project in a multi-year project being conducted in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The goal is to combine current statistical methods with improved remote sensing and computer modeling to allow for better water planning. If successful, we could see soon have even more accurate snowpack measurements and runoff forecasts.

NRCS reported that Colorado's reservoir storage was at 110% of average to start April, with an average snowpack still to melt off. Also, the majority of streams in Colorado are still anticipated to produce normal to above normal flows, with the exception of the Upper South Platte and streams in the Yampa and White River basins. Those streamflow projections are for current snowpack, and average spring precipitation.

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