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All aboard the Pineapple Express

Steve Benson

Has Mother Nature gone completely insane? It seems like all of California is underwater – liquid down low, frozen and white up high. Over the weekend it snowed in Las Vegas and Seattle, and last month along the Gulf Coast of Texas, where people were cross-country skiing on beaches. Parts of the Sierra Nevada have been buried under 19 feet of snow since Dec. 28 – the biggest storm in close to 90 years – and that’s on top of an already hefty snowpack. Sun Valley ski resort in Idaho has a shocking 106-inch base up top, Utah’s Alta has a typical 135-inch base, and Aspen’s four mountains have been slammed with close to 4 feet of snow in the past two weeks. Then it rained in town, in January. It looked and felt more like spring than midwinter in Aspen on Monday as enormous melting snowbanks and dripping clouds turned streets into muddy swimming pools. Meanwhile, several hundred feet in elevation above town, the Epic flag was flying at Highlands for the first time all season after 15 inches of snow fell in 24 hours. So what’s going on? “It’s called the Pineapple Express,” said Chris Cuoco, a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “Southwesterly flow is taking a lot of warm, wet air from the Pacific – all the way out to Hawaii – and bringing it into the West Coast.” One system after another is slamming into California, he added, and Colorado is getting the leftovers. Crested Butte has received 60 inches in the past week, while Silverton Mountain Ski Area in the San Juans has reportedly received 100 inches in the past 11 days. “That’s amazing,” Cuoco said about the staggering snow amounts across the entire mountain West. As for the rain in town, Cuoco said it’s highly unusual for this time of year but can accompany storms driven by a southwest flow, especially when the moisture is coming from so far south in the Pacific. “It’s just cold enough to produce snow in the higher elevations,” he said Monday night. “Right now the rain/snow line seems to be between 7,000 and 8,000 feet. Hopefully that will drop some tonight.” El Niño, a weather phenomenon that affects the southwestern part of the United States, may be contributing to the abundant moisture this season. The current El Niño event has been labeled weak to mild by climate experts. “This is the kind of reaction we see with a mild EL Niño event,” Cuoco said. “The Southwest U.S. is much wetter than normal.” So is the Aspen area.Jeff Hanle, spokesman for the Aspen Skiing Co., said snowpack was at about 150 percent compared to the last five years before the latest storm cycle hit. The wet snows may provide some relief in the drought, barring a long, warm dry spell. Across most of western Colorado, Cuoco said, precipitation was on average before the storm. “We’re going to be above normal when this storm moves out of here about midweek,” he said. “After that, we’ll assess how much fell and take a look at the numbers.” Another 6 to 12 inches could fall in the Aspen area before all is said and done this week. The season got off to a good start with bountiful early snows, but a strong high pressure invaded in December, keeping most of the month dry. Unfortunately, another similarly strong high pressure system is expected to move over the West later this week. “The long-range predictors say the second half of January will be dry,” he said. “That means lots of nice sunny days.” That also means an end to falling snow, at least for a while. Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com


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