From fickle weather patterns in the winter to extremely hot and dry weather conditions in the summer, 2012 was a year of multiple weather extremes that all left their mark, making extreme weather the No. 3 Watch story of the year.
As 2012 got underway, snow conditions at the Telluride Ski Resort were among the state’s best, although mostly by default, due to conditions elsewhere in the West, with Vail reporting about an 18-inch base at the start of the year and Winter Park and Steamboat both in the low 20s.
Telluride and Purgatory, on the other hand, both boasted a 30-inch base, although the snow cover was thin and getting thinner. For those hoping the winter weather patterns would bring a bounty of snow, the National Weather Service didn’t hold out much hope. Despite hopes expressed by NWS meterologist Joe Ramey regarding the January 2012 “strong snowy climate signal under La Niña conditions,” which could bring “ increased snowfall, at least favoring the northern mountains,” the tables soon turned, with, he explained, “the ridge in the eastern Pacific again blocking us from the storm path,” with a pattern “prognosticated to persist for the next 10 days at least.” That prognostication was validated as the winter season in the San Juan Mountains delivered a relatively low snowpack, with the April snowpack at Red Mountain Pass 55 percent of normal, and the Upper San Juans’ at 45 percent. Blue Mesa Reservoir was 50 percent lower than usual in April (with expectations of filling to roughly 78 percent). On May 1, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, which supplies Montrose County farmers with irrigation water, requested a call on its water rights on the Uncompahgre River. That call affected not only the City of Ouray but other junior upstream water users, including the Tri County Water Conservancy District which controls the water in Ridgway Reservoir, and the reservoir had to release its inflows downstream while the call was in effect.
“People shouldn't panic, but they should be diligent in their water use and trust that there are water managers that have been through this before and who are working together,” said Dan Crabtree, water management group chief for the Bureau of Reclamation.
On the heels of the low snowpack came extremely dry and hot weather conditions that led to an onslaught of devastating early-summer wildfires. As the Fourth of July holiday drew close, agencies regionwide fire restrictions, including the foregoing of public displays of fireworks for Independence Day. Weather forecasters at the time watched anxiously for signs that the southwestern monsoonal weather pattern would take effect, but at the same time worried that with the much-needed rain it would bring, those storms could bring wildfire-sparking lightning.
As if on cue, the monsoonal pattern showed up just in time for July 4, somewhat easing wildfire worries for the rest of the summer. In Telluride the hot and dry weather highlighted fears that the town’s municipal water supply at times came close to maxing out, during the drought, and that if a wildfire were to start, water resources were dangerously low.
As we approach 2013, with reservoirs and the snowpack relatively low, attention is focused once again focused on weather forecasters. What will the weather patterns of 2013 bring? The hot and dry weather of 2012 could have been worse, but reservoirs were relatively full, thanks to high snowpack levels in 2010-2011. Now that they are low, will there be enough snow to fill the reservoirs for next summer?
“I hate to say it, but it still looks like a No Niño winter,” Ramey said last month. No Niño winters tend to be “wild cards,” often producing dry winters for western Colorado, but also generating what seems to be, in weather records, an unusual number of “extreme weather events” or dry or very wet seasons.
For better or worse, reports about the weather patterns in the coming year will most likely make it on The Watch’s top ten stories of 2013.