San Juan Snowpack 2019: Big, but not the biggest (yet)

Let there be no doubt: It has been a snowy winter in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, along with the rest of the state and much of the nation. Six people have been killed in Colorado avalanches, three of them in the San Juans. The highways leading into Silverton have been closed multiple times this winter due to avalanches, and Red Mountain Pass remains shut and buried with miles of slide debris as I write this early on March 7. Skiing, by all accounts, has been fantastic. If someone were to have gone into hibernation a year ago in the San Juans, and had just woken up today, they’d probably think they had been transported into a completely different world.

A CDOT driver clears debris from the East Riverside slide south of Red Mountain Pass in early March. This slide is the deadliest on Hwy 550 between Durango and Ouray. In the ’60s a reverend and his two daughters were killed here, and plow drivers were killed by the Riverside in ’78 and ’92, not long after the (too-short) snowshed was built. Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation.

And yet, according to data from a sampling of SNOTEL stations across the San Juans, the March 1 snowpack still did not crack the top three highest levels on record, even though the SNOTEL records only go back less than four decades. Yeah, I know, those of you who have spent much of the winter shoveling out or catching sweet face shots are probably wondering what kind of Bulgarian weed this guy’s smoking. But I’m just the messenger, here, delivering data gathered by remote, automated, and perfectly sober stations, specifically those located near Molas Lake, on Red Mountain Pass, and in Columbus Basin in the La Plata Mountains.

The graphs below show this water year’s snow water equivalent for the first of each month so far, average level for the period of record, 2018 levels, and the two highest snowpacks on March 1 during the period of record.

Screen Shot 2019-03-07 at 10.28.46 AM
Red Mountain Pass is so far seeing its 8th heaviest snowpack for 3/1 since 1981.
Screen Shot 2019-03-07 at 10.23.53 AM
We’re not sure what’s going on at Molas, where the SNOTEL station showed the March 1 snowpack sitting at average levels. This year is at 14th biggest snows since 1987.
Screen Shot 2019-03-07 at 10.18.51 AM
While the snowpack is sitting well above average at Columbus Basin, it remains far below previous years, sitting in sixth place since 1995.

The main takeaways: • The snowpack, i.e. the snow water equivalent, is sitting well above average for the period of record for each station. • The snow water equivalent for each station is currently about two times what it was a year ago. • A lot more snow will have to fall in order to make this the biggest winter on record.

And now for some caveats: • These graphs show snowpack levels at the first of the month, and all three of the sample stations have received two to three more inches of SWE since then in massive early March storms, which could have boosted this year’s ranking a bit. • I chose these three stations because they sit at a high altitude (and had values > 0 last year), and because they are geographically diverse. It’s possible that lower elevation stations have more snow this year than they ever have. I’ll look into that for a future post. • These data are merely for the amount of water in the snow at a specific point of time. They do not necessarily reflect total snow accumulation for the water year. It’s possible that more snow has fallen than in “bigger” years, but that warmer temperatures have melted it. I’ll also look into how this winter’s temperatures compare to previous years in a future post.


RLS Front Cover FINAL_010418Jonathan P. Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine DisasterGet a copy of River of Lost Souls.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

— Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine.



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