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Smoke obscures the sun as fire approaches a ridge along Highway 36 as several wildfires burn in the state Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, south of Lyons, Colo. Photo by David Zalubowski / AP Photo
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Colorado’s 2020 Weather Extremes Were Very on Brand for the Year

From an extended, hot and dry summer to a rare derecho and the catastrophic fire season, 2020’s weather events drove us into the statewide drought conditions that exist today. But these extremes might not be that abnormal moving forward.

It’s safe to assume that most people are happy to see 2020 in the rearview mirror, even if the change in the calendar doesn’t directly reflect a change in our circumstances—and we’re not just talking about the pandemic. The year in Colorado weather was nothing short of on-brand for 2020, as a series of extreme weather events lead to the state to experience its seventh warmest and third driest year on record. Now, as we enter 2021, the entirety of the state is dealing with moderate to exceptional drought conditions, which, considering the above-average temperatures we’re seeing, are not likely to ease anytime soon.

The situation just goes to show that, with climate change, much can change in a year. At the beginning of 2020, Colorado was sitting pretty: solid early-season snowfall helped the state have above-average snowpack numbers through April. For forecasters, this usually implies less severe drought conditions for the upcoming season due to how we typically expect the snow to melt. But we saw barely any additional snow in late April and May when above-average temperatures started to encroach on the state. Come June, the statewide snowpack was at only 50 percent of normal and was only 11 percent of what we saw in June 2019.

“The early melt translated to bad stream flows and reservoirs not being totally replenished, so we just didn’t reap the benefit of that snowpack that we normally do,” says Becky Bolinger, a climate scientist at the Colorado Climate Center. “And this led into the summer which was really bad all around.”

In the hot and dry summer, we saw virtually no rain from afternoon thunderstorms or the annual monsoon, which tends to help bump up our yearly precipitation totals. Monsoon moisture is essential for keeping Colorado hydrated, and this year was one of the worst-performing seasons ever recorded. Most stations in Colorado during the normal monsoon months (June through September) saw less than half of the precipitation that typically falls. Notably (and fittingly for 2020), there was a big rain and wind event in June that sent meteorologists into a frenzy due to its rareness. The June derecho was a line of thunderstorms that started in Utah and traversed across Colorado, bringing winds up to 110 mph to some areas.

Although the derecho brought a big rain storm to the state, it didn’t provide enough moisture to saturate the ground. The continuing dryness and heat browned our landscape and set us up for a devastating summer. On July 31, the Pine Gulch fire erupted in Western Colorado, and from there, the season ramped up to become the worst fire season in Colorado’s history, with three blazes—Pine Gulch, Cameron Peak, and East Troublesome—becoming the top three largest wildfires on record.

As we entered the fall, the state continued to experience relentless heat and dryness. August was one of the hottest months on record in Denver, while September and October saw warmer than normal temperatures and below normal precipitation. “This warmer than average pattern is something that we can expect to continue to see,” Bolinger says, adding that September is now just a continuation of summer and not as much of a transitory month into fall as it used to be. “That lengthening of summer, whether we have drought or not, is something that we all are going to have to learn to deal with,” she says.

Since about 2000, droughts have been happening more frequently, which doesn’t allow for as much time for recovery—a trend that the Colorado Climate Center has been watching closely. “Droughts are increasing in intensity because of increasing temperatures,” Bolinger says. She added that when you have dry soil, that ground starts to release sensible heat (a product of temperature) rather than latent heat (a product of moisture). “This process leads to less precipitation, which dries out the soil more. Theoretically, there’s this idea that dry soil feeds and keeps drought going in some kind of a positive feedback loop,” Bolinger says. This is not a perfect relationship though. There are a lot of factors that play a role that make the drought process more complicated.

The cycle we’re in now is relentless. As we start 2021 with a below-average snowpack for the new water year and temperatures continue to hold steady just a notch above normal, it would take substantial moisture to get us out of this drought. Maybe the year of extremes we experienced in 2020 won’t be that abnormal moving forward, as climate change continues to alter the state’s landscape. The projections that the Colorado Climate Center released on what this water year could look like show that we could receive average precipitation based on where we are starting. But, Colorado could also have another really bad year. The Climate Prediction Center shows that below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures will probably stay with us through the winter and continue into spring. “If the drought continues, we can certainly expect to see water restrictions come spring and summer of 2021,” Bolinger says.

So, if you love Colorado for its ample sunshine and decently warm winters, you’re in luck—it seems like the trend is continuing in that direction but not without a price.

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