2007: The ‘no-snow season’ that (nearly) was | AspenTimes.com

2007: The ‘no-snow season’ that (nearly) was

John Colson
The Aspen Times

After an unusually warm and dry November, Aspenites awoke Dec. 2 to see a gleaming, thick blanket of snow. Up on the ski slopes, 2 to 3 feet of heavy snow had fallen.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

In late November, when local ski slopes were nearly bare and the prospects for the winter ski season seemed bleak, an editor at The Aspen Times called for a story comparing this year to the much-maligned 1976-77 season, when it failed to snow appreciably until late February, and the town went into a kind of early season survival crouch [see related story].

This year, some snow fell around Halloween and a total of 7 inches fell in the early part of November, but temperatures warmed back up and, by Thanksgiving, the lower slopes were bare.

But just as this reporter got started on the initial research for the story, a strong storm system dumped 2 to 3 feet of heavy snow on the mountains surrounding Aspen on Dec. 1, and the 2007-’08 season got off to what most are saying is a fine, if late, start.

As of Dec. 7, the deadline for this story, the Aspen area had received somewhere around 4 or 5 feet of snow in a week. And since weather reports were calling for even more to come, it could be seen as evidence that a recent snow-dance party, not to mention an editor’s fervid thoughts about this very article, may have done something to nudge the snow gods into action.

Still, there were moments in November when this year’s ski season looked questionable, with unseasonably warm days and nights. And that warmth could easily return anytime, as any weather-watcher knows.

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Some weather forecasters already have predicted a relatively warm and dry winter, thanks to a La Nina weather pattern over the Pacific Ocean. It should be noted, however, that The Farmer’s Almanac, which correctly predicted this year’s early December snows for the Central Rockies, is calling for more heavy, wet snowstorms next week, and again around Christmas. The Almanac also predicts a snowy January.

Overall, prognosticators are being cautious about their projections for this winter’s snowfall in the Rockies. Bill Badina, a Denver-based meteorologist, was quoted recently in The Glenwood Springs Post Independent as saying La Nina could mean better-than-average snowfall in northwestern Colorado, but lower-than-average accumulations in the Southwest. As has happened before, that could put Aspen right on the line of demarcation between a good snow winter and a bad one, catching just the southern edge of snowstorms that track to the north.

Of course, just as it was 31 years ago, locals familiar with the snow patterns of the Colorado Rockies didn’t fret when the local ski slopes were brown for Thanksgiving 2007.

“It’s completely different,” celebrated local ski instructor John Phillips declared this week. “We have snowmaking now, and we didn’t back then [in 1976-77], or not much of it. If we’d had snowmaking back then, we would have been teaching, or skiing” from Thanksgiving on.

Local ski fanatic and pilot Polly Ross, who visited Aspen in March 1977 and moved here the following year, was on Fanny Hill at Snowmass Ski Area on opening day 2007 and noted Dec. 6, “This is my first day off the ski slopes since Thanksgiving.”

She said that as November 2007 passed and the meager snow mostly melted, “I was starting to worry about it being like ’76-’77 … I left the wing covers off [her small airplane] to make it snow ” and it did.” She also noted that, historically, Thanksgiving weekend typically offers a mediocre skiing experience anyway.

So, how did this November shape up, relative to past Novembers?

According to weather records maintained by the Aspen Water Department, based on data collected at a station at 8,148 feet in elevation and transmitted to the Western Regional Climate Center, from 1980 through 2005 the average snowfall in November was 27.7 inches, and in December was 24.8 inches. The average snow depth reported for the same months, over the same period of years, has been 1 inch and 6 inches, respectively.

It should be noted that snowfall and snow-depth numbers at the top of Aspen Mountain are typically higher than those collected by the city, because the Aspen Skiing Co.’s collecting station is at 11,184 feet above sea level.

The water department records show that, even in 1976-77, the snowfall for November was 9 inches. The only years with lower snowfall amounts in November were 1943 (8 inches), 1957 (zero) and 1999 (just under 8 inches).

The highest snowfall ever reported for November, between 1934 and this year, was 55 inches in 1983. That was the year when Aspen’s total snowfall for the season reached 278 inches, the most ever for a single season. Snowfall numbers for the top of Aspen Mountain that year reached 344 inches, according to Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle.

Aspen’s most meager snow totals came in the 1976-77 season, when snowfall reached a mere 85.7 inches by the city’s measurements.

In terms of precipitation, those 7 inches of snow that fell this November translated into only 0.4 inches of moisture, in a month that normally has an average of more than 2 inches.

Temperatures in November hovered in the 50s and 60s in the early weeks and reached 65 degrees Fahrenheit on Nov. 20.

Comparatively, that remarkable high-temperature mark was well above the average of 43.3 degrees. And even though November’s lowest low, 4 degrees, was well below the 18.7 degree average low, most of the month was too warm for snowmaking. The average daily temperature was 36.27 degrees, and the average daily high was 50 degrees. Even the lows, on a daily basis, were often above the freezing mark, and the mean daily temperatures for the month were above 40 degrees for the first half of the month.

The hope, then, is that December will mark a return to form, and that The Farmer’s Almanac will prove to be correct.