Retired state climatologist talks drought at State of the River event in Steamboat
March 22, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Described as the "Brad Pitt" of the scientific climatology community, retired Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken gave a spirited overview of the area’s climate history to a standing-room-only crowd at Tuesday's State of the Rivers event in Steamboat Springs.
Detailing the region's most recent drought years in 2002 and 2012, Doesken used a series of graphs to show that 2018 is looking "not that bad compared to really bad, and not that bad compared to other parts of the state, but not really good."
Retiring in 2017, Doesken spent 40 years at the Colorado Climate Center in Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Science. He was appointed to state climatologist in 2006.
In 1998, following the 1997 Fort Collins flood, Doesken established the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, or CoCoRaHS, "a unique, nonprofit, community-based network of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds working together to measure and map precipitation (rain, hail and snow)."
He continues to grow the network and used Tuesday's speech to recruit new participants, offering a free rain gauge to the first to volunteer to join his team, which today collects data in all 50 states.
From the droughts of 1924, 1954 and 1977 to the "crazy water years" in the early- to mid-1980s, Doesken took the audience through a whirlwind history of state and local weather.
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He described 2014's unusual out-of-season monsoon moisture and 2015's "Miracle May," which brought four months of precipitation in one.
Known for his humor, passion and ability to engage and connect to everyone on the spectrum of weather watchers, Doesken made his presentation of numerous graphs and maps fast and fun, without glossing over the grim reality that "drought is always looking at us."
With Steamboat included in the high Rockies region that is on average the "wettest part of the state," the area is historically less variable than the rest of the state, Doesken noted, and it usually can "expect a reliable and trustworthy water supply."
And when Steamboat sees its driest weather in late summer, other parts of the state are experiencing their wettest months, he observed.
But, while the northern Colorado Rockies haven't seen the desired level of precipitation in recent months, he said southern parts of the state are faring much worse and made even worse by the fact that it's been warm and "leaning warm" for the past 30 years.
In the past year, six states in the Southwest saw their warmest November through January period in recorded history, he said.
In general, but "with many exceptions," Doesken said, warmer phases lead to wetter conditions while cooler temperatures are associated with dryer weather.
“When it comes to the all-important snowpack, anytime cooler temperatures keep the snow frozen longer. It's a good thing,” he said.
Doesken answered a question from the audience about the "more frequent and persistent" high pressure ridge, which he called concerning, especially for California. Asked about the rate of snow melt, he said it is something to pay close attention to in that it "changes the ways we manage water."
So, what can area residents expect in coming days and weeks?
For one, "The wind shall blow," Doesken said, as the season hovers on the dividing line between warm and cold. And it looks like April is leaning back toward the dry and warm side.
In terms of a seven-day forecast, the region could see 10 to 15 inches of precipitation, he said, while April is leaning back toward the dry and warm side.
To join Doesken's team of precipitation-measurers, or to view the data and more information, go to cocorahs.org.
"Everyone can help, young, old, and in-between," according to the website. "The only requirements are an enthusiasm for watching and reporting weather conditions and a desire to learn more about how weather can affect and impact our lives."