From ski tourism to local politics, and from winter road conditions to dicey weather forecasts, we take a broad look at how Colorado deals with the sometimes sloppy issue of snow.
This article was chosen as a finalist for a 2010 National Magazine Award, and was a finalist for the 2010 City and Regional Magazine Award in the reader service category.
Experts predict that global warming will dramatically alter our snowfall in the coming decades. Here, what Colorado skiing may look like in 90 years.
Climatologists, meteorologists, and snow scientists all agree that if global warming continues on its current trajectory, there is a chance that there will be no skiable snow in Colorado by the year 2100—an impending catastrophe that could spell the end of the state's $2.6 billion ski industry, which accounts for one percent of the state's gross domestic product and 31,000 of its jobs. Here's what they say may happen.
Although the push to curb global warming has been under way for years, should moderate to high greenhouse-gas emissions continue through the middle of the century, dramatic climate change could ensue. Big changes, especially in the Rocky Mountains, could become noticeable by 2030.
Average temperatures could increase by as much as nine degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, a change that could shorten the typical ski season to late December through February from November through April.
Total precipitation in the mountains may decrease—and the amount of precipitation falling as snow could drop dramatically, meaning more annual precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow. When it does snow, the crystals will be dense, making champagne powder a thing of the past.
The number of frost-free days could increase, making it difficult to create man-made snow early in the season. Because of a combination of higher temperatures and decreased precipitation, maximum snowpack (the date when melting begins) will occur in early February instead of mid-March. Which means "spring skiing" conditions will begin in the middle of the winter.
Higher elevations will receive the most natural snow, and they will also be the only areas cold enough for snow-making machines. Resorts may have to open higher terrain to take advantage of available snow. This could cause two issues: increased altitude sickness among visitors and less beginner terrain.
Consistent snow coverage will be limited to the top third of the ski mountains. Most, if not all, base villages could have zero coverage, making gondola service a requirement and midmountain amenities and facilities a must.
Later opening dates and earlier closing dates could mean that the ski resorts miss out on the Christmas and spring break vacationers they once relied on. More than one Colorado ski resort could shut down when it's unable to bring in enough money to operate.
A typical ski resort must be open for 105 days to yield an average profit margin of 6.5 to 7 percent. If a shortened ski season leads to even a one percent annual decrease in the number of tourists, the total economic effects could include losses of more than $375 million and more than 4,500 jobs by 2017. Imagine what it could be like by 2100. —LBK
Is Denver International Airport ready for a repeat of the 2006 blizzard?
Airports are a necessary evil even in the best of times. But when they get 20 to 22 inches of snow and gale-force winds, at holiday time, and are forced to close for 45 hours—all of which happened to Denver International Airport three years ago next month—airports become a giant clog in the artery that is our interconnected 21st-century air-travel system.
In the aftermath of the Great Blizzard of '06, DIA commissioned a $200,000, independent report to assess the airport's failings, which read in part: "The snow events of December 2006 at DIA cost both the airlines and the airport millions of dollars and tarnished the reputation of an otherwise world-class airport." Fortunately, much of what the report recommended in terms of practical upgrades was implemented by DIA over the past couple of years. The airport's totally revamped snow plan includes hiring extra contract workers to clear snow, creating guidelines to focus on critical areas (like keeping three runways open instead of five or six), and investing in 30-plus multifunction snow machines, each of which can plow, broom, and blow snow.
So, have the changes left DIA ready for the next big dump? "Yes," says DIA spokesman Chuck Cannon. "But there's a caveat: If Mother Nature drops one and a half to two inches of snow an hour and whips up 40 mph winds, you just can't operate an airport." We get that. But here's hoping the snazzy new snow plan also includes some instruction on how to alleviate the ridiculously confusing security lines, the complete disorganization at the ticket counters, and the total lack of communication between passengers and DIA personnel we experienced the last time DIA took a sucker punch from Old Man Winter. —GVD
When snow hits Colorado's streets, all hell breaks loose.
Like nearly every other problem in Colorado, it's easiest to lay blame for incompetent winter driving on Californians and Texans. But even true natives can get into trouble on the road. Mark Cox, director of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs (www.winterdrive.com), helps us dispel some common winter driving myths. —PD
Myth I: 4WD makes me indestructible.
Sure, your Jeep can climb over deep snow, but 4WD or all-wheel drive is not a cure-all for icy, winter roads. "4WD doesn't let you brake or turn any better than two-wheel vehicles," Cox says. The bottom line: Don't let your extra traction make you think you're Superman.
Myth II: Heavy snow makes for the toughest driving.
Not according to Cox. "Deep snow is fairly easy to drive in," he says—you just need to have a good set of snow tires and go slow. "The thaw cycle, when old snow is breaking down, makes for uneven roads—you're going from dry pavement to slush to ice. That's the most dangerous." His advice? Stop ripping through the melting mess.
Myth III: My all-season tires are just as good as snow tires.
Not quite. "Lots of people believe that all-season tires are all you need—and they're probably fine in Denver," Cox says. "But if you're regularly driving into the mountains, that's not the case." Investing in a pair of snow tires for the winter can be pricey, but it sure beats sliding off I-70 on your way to Vail.
Myth IV: My car keeps skidding out for no reason.
"The car is just a tool," Cox says. "It responds to human control. And just because you're sliding, it doesn't mean it is out of control." If you're skidding while trying to turn, your car is understeering. Take your foot off the gas or brake, and turn the wheel slightly back toward straight to regain traction. If you're fishtailing, or oversteering, steer into the skid and lightly tap the accelerator.
Myth V: If I get stuck on the road, the police will save me.
They might. Or they might not. Be prepared and stock your car with food, water, a blanket, clothing and boots, a flashlight, and jumper cables. Alternatively, if the weather is getting bad, get off the road. "Sometimes the most prudent thing to do is to pull off to someplace safe and wait out the weather," Cox says.
Please give me—and my 2WD SUV—a little latitude.
For the record, I bought my fire-engine-red Ford Explorer Sport when I was a 19-year-old at the University of Georgia. Back then I had wanted something big enough to cart my friends and a 70-quart cooler to and from football games. I didn't need a V8 engine. I didn't need heated leather seats. And I certainly didn't need 4WD. I sped away from the dealership in my shiny new vehicle, overjoyed that I had wheels that would get me, my friends, and our tailgating paraphernalia from point A to point B for the foreseeable future.
If only I'd looked a few years down the road, a road that would eventually lead me to Colorado.
I knew I was in trouble within weeks of moving to Denver in August 2001. No, it wasn't a freak summer snowstorm that tipped me off. It was a stop to get my car's emissions tested. As I pulled onto the emissions-check platform, a potbellied, oil-covered lane inspector named Ed poked his head through my window and asked "4WD?" I shook my head no and offered that my car was rear-wheel drive. Ed looked at me, grinned, and then yelled across the garage, "Hey, Charlie, come look at this! This lady's got a 2WD SUV in Colorado!"
Although I told myself that Ed was just a mean mechanic with less-than-stellar people skills, I later found out that Ed was right, and I was so, so wrong. And, as much as I hate to admit it, after eight years I'm still that person that all native Coloradans detest: the ultra-slow snowy-day driver. Because I know I'm "that guy," I try exceptionally hard to be considerate of those with better traction. I don't take my car into the mountains. I drive on less-traveled streets to evade other drivers. I even ride the bus when there's more than a few inches on the ground in the city.
But I can't entirely avoid the road from October through April, and regardless of how hard I try to fit in among Colorado drivers, it doesn't always work. My Southern-born car simply refuses to grip a snow-packed street. No matter how far in advance I start tapping my brakes, I slide through stop signs. No matter how deliberately I take a corner, my rear fishtails and sends me into a full-on 360. No matter how slowly I depress the gas pedal at a green light, my rear tires spin in place. One time I was actually stopped—stopped—at an intersection and my car began sliding sideways off the street.
It's humiliating. But you know what doesn't help? The jacked-up Jeep with giant tires behind me that keeps inching closer and closer to my bumper. Or the guy in the Land Rover who throws his hands in the air because I'm, God forbid, going the speed limit in near-whiteout conditions. Or the fortysomething lady in her little squatty Subaru who doesn't think it's rude to ask how long it's going to take me to get un-stuck, because she wants my parking space.
I do understand that I'm the problem child here. I have the wrong gear—a sin in Colorado in many, many situations. And many Coloradans have asked why I don't just get a different truck. But here's the rub: I like my car. It works just fine about 355 days out of the year. And I have good memories in that car. My grandfather helped me pick it out on that lot in Georgia all those years ago. I packed that car full of friends and drove all of us to the beach during college. I drove across the country to move to Denver in that car. It's a reliable ride that has less than 90,000 miles on it. And, of course, after 10 years, I don't owe a dime on it.
So here is my humble request: The next time you slide into your 4WD on a slick, snowy Denver day, remember that your impatience with the car in front of you—the one that's spinning its wheels—isn't going to magically make that rear-wheel drive grab the pavement. It just isn't. Instead, you're going to make some stressed and embarrassed person feel even worse than she already does. So, sit back, unclench, and enjoy the fact that you were smart enough to pony up for those heated leather seats. —LBK
What you need to know if you haven't snagged a snowblower yet.
Mother Nature packed a powerful 10-inch punch overnight, and now you have to spend an hour shoveling in a freezing, predawn winter wonderland just to get your car out of the driveway. The upshot: Major postshoveling pain—tweaked nerve endings, muscle strains, disc herniations, and spasms that vibrate through your back every time you move. Not to worry. We checked in with the Colorado Comprehensive Spine Institute's Dr. Joseph Fillmore, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician, for the lowdown on snow shoveling dos and don'ts. —JD
Make sure you're in reasonable shape.
"It's like any other strenuous exercise. You need to be in fairly good medical condition—I've seen people go out and have a heart attack shoveling snow. Snow is very heavy; you can injure yourself very easily. People should warm up."
Choose your weapon wisely.
"You need a shovel that's the right length; if it's too long, you won't be able to bend your knees enough. You want to bend with the knees so you can lift up rather than pulling up with the back. And some further advice: Get a curved-handle shovel, because it reduces the torque on your back."
Try to be Hercules.
"Lift small amounts, and try to push as much as you can. Go from the top of the pile to the bottom—don't try to start at the bottom. The weight of snow can be detrimental to your lower back."
Toss it 'cause it's faster.
"It's never a good idea to twist; trying to throw snow over your shoulder can really injure your back. Keep your back straight, place your hands shoulder-width apart, bend your knees, and walk over to where you want to place the snow."
Think you're immune to the ol' disc slip.
"As you get older, things change in your body; you lose elasticity, and your body can't bounce back as quickly from muscle strains as it once did. The discs in the back, as you move through life, tend to dry out and become more brittle. You're more subject to injuring your back because the disc isn't quite as pliable. Seventy percent of our practice is treating back injuries. During winter, it's either people who are skiing and fall or people who are out trying to clean off the driveway."
Do you know Denver's sidewalk snow-shoveling laws?
Like it or not, one residential duty binds us all come wintertime: the act of shoveling the sidewalk. After all, just because everything's covered in white doesn't mean there aren't places to go and things to do. So it makes sense that the city has rules for this kind of thing. Within city limits, walkways must be accessible and safe, and Denver ensures this by requiring that residents remove snow from their adjacent public walks within 24 hours after the last flake falls. (Businesses have four hours.) During a major snow event, like the blizzard of March 2003, officials may suspend these rules for up to 72 hours.
To keep us all honest, the city coordinates route inspections in commercial districts and relies largely on citizen complaints—dial 311—to keep residential areas in check. Complaints result in about 3,000 cases of snow-removal negligence a year, but most are resolved with a first-time warning. So, yeah, it's a bummer to have to trudge out before work, but making a habit of not clearing your walkways could leave you short $150—the city's going rate for a first-time citation. —CHJ
Denver might not be the snowiest city in the nation (that's Valdez, Alaska), and it certainly isn't the coldest (try Barrow, Alaska, or, for a bigger town, Minneapolis). But Denver and the Centennial State get their fair share of wintry blasts that bring loads of the white stuff. And it all usually starts right around, well, now. Which means all the trappings winter—mittens, hats, sleds, skis, snowplows, chain laws, windshield scrapers, shovels, snowblowers, de-icer, snow boots, long underwear, coats, and heating bills—are about to appear once more. And that's OK—fantastic even—because living with the snow is part of our reality and our identity here in Colorado. From ski tourism to local politics, and from winter road conditions to dicey weather forecasts, we take a broad look at how Colorado deals with the sometimes sloppy—yet often enjoyable—issue of snow.
Who's got the better powder—Colorado or Utah?
Colorado boasts some of the most highly rated ski resorts in the world, we have the highest-elevation lifts in the country, and our slopes host about 12 million skiers each year—more than any other state. Colorado certainly has the American ski tourism market cornered, but do we have the best snow for it?
It's an age-old argument among all snow-producing states, but the question of who has the best snow is a major point of contention between we square-staters and our next-door neighbors to the west. It's a pride thing—and neither Colorado nor Utah is willing to admit defeat. In truth, there will never be a definitive answer to end this debate, no matter how much we may want one. But there is some qualitative evidence—and a mountain of anecdotal substantiation—that gets us close.
For the most part, the debate has centered around two important aspects of snowfall: the quantity and the quality. Although these two terms may seem unrelated, the crux of the snow battle can be found in the combination of these characteristics. And, although Coloradans may not like it, Utah may have the upper hand.
Meteorologists, climatologists, and atmospheric scientists—both Colorado- and Utah-based—agree that snowfall at Utah's key ski resorts is better built for powder skiing. "Quality snow is indeed a matter of opinion," says Dr. Jim Steenburgh, a professor in the University of Utah's department of atmospheric sciences. "Many skiers, however, equate the water content of the snow with quality, and this is somewhat true. Most skiers will agree that high-water-content snow is heavy and difficult to ski." But Steenburgh also says that "dry snow" isn't the only necessary ingredient for great powder skiing. In Steenburgh's "Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth," a September 2008 article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, he finds that the quantity of lower-water-content snow is just as important as the anatomy of the snow itself. And it is this crucial amalgamation of factors that gives Utah resorts their edge.
"Keep in mind that our moisture in the winter comes from the west," says Nolan Doesken, Colorado's state climatologist. "Utah gets dibs on that weather before us. Their mountains are nice north-to-south ranges that rest sort of perpendicular to the flow of the storms, and they wring out a lot of moisture." Which means Utah gets, in its concentrated ski areas, low- to moderate-density snow just like Colorado does, but it tends to come in bigger dumps. On the flip side, Colorado receives very few monster snows, instead relying on a lot of little ones. And that favors Utah's ski areas, especially if you're a powder hound.
It's a nasty dose of reality for Colorado die-hards who swear by our powder. But keep in mind there's a good reason—more than one, actually—our hills draw more visitors than Utah's: Beginner and intermediate skiers often like snow with a little more body on a more solid base; we have much more lift-served terrain; and our slope-side lodging, dining, and entertainment options far surpass most Utah resorts. And it's not like our version of the white stuff leaves a lot to be desired. Ever heard of champagne powder? —LBK
The meteorological rule in Colorado is the farther south one goes, the higher density the snow will be. But there are other factors to consider: Areas with higher altitudes but lower winds will have lower-density snows. Regions with higher winds will have higher-density snow because wind breaks snow crystals, which land more compactly with less air between the flakes. Resorts that reside in the south of the state but catch the southern end of storms that hit the northern part of the state often have moderate-density snows. Of course, snow quality is also all about quantity—which varies wildly across the state. Here, we take a look at some of the more popular resorts:
In the interest of reducing road rage, we asked the city and state to explain their seemingly haphazard street-clearing methods. —NG
The Scenario It's been snowing for three hours yet Speer hasn't been cleared. You've just seen a second car slide into the curb in front of you when you notice there's a mini-snowplow down on the Cherry Creek bike path—the bike path!—clearing away.
You Think Um, hello? We could use some help up here. You know, where the cars are.
The Truth Bike path snow-clearing equipment is part of the Denver Parks and Recreation Department, and not the Street Maintenance Division's fleet. Plus, those machines aren't made to clear roads. Next time, bundle up and hit the trails for a skid-free trip.
The Scenario Four inches have fallen already, and you see a government-issue orange truck tooling down the road with its snowplow stuck up in the air.
You Think Is it that hard to just put that shovel down and clear the way? We're dying here.
The Truth Relax. You're on a city street, and that orange truck is part of the Colorado Department of Transportation's fleet. It's heading for state-maintained roads, like I-25. Now, if you see a white city-issue truck doing the same, feel free to be irate.
The Scenario You were dreading your drive down 23rd Avenue, but the street was clean and traffic was moving. You're having the best snow-day commute ever—until you hit downtown. Why is 18th Street a skating rink when 23rd was almost dry?
You Think Damn. So close.
The Truth The plows will get to 18th—eventually. Major traffic arteries like Speer Boulevard and Colfax Avenue are the first to see plows, whether those streets are on your way to work or not. Each of the city's snow routes has an "A," "B," or "S" (for schools) priority, and it could take plows eight hours to complete one pass of their entire route.
The Scenario Your street has seen 10 inches of snowfall in the last 24 hours, and there's no way your car is going to make it out of your driveway.
You Think I bet the plows will be here any minute.
The Truth The plows are never coming. Really. The city's snow-removal plan only includes residential streets if we get more than 12 inches in freezing temps.
The Scenario A late-season storm hits on April 2. The city is covered in 36 inches of the white stuff.
You Think Sweet! The slopes needed some extra coverage. I'm headed up tomorrow.
The Truth No, you're not—because many roads will be completely unplowed. The city plan only covers storms from November 15 through March 15.