Christmas day storm could drop up to 16 inches around Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Christmas day storm could drop up to 16 inches around Aspen

Snowfall predictions as of Sunday for the winter storm expected to hit the northern and central Colorado mountains into Christmas.

All it took was the official start of winter and a few Christmas wishes from skiers and boarders for the snow to really start flying.

The National Weather Service upgraded a storm forecasted to start Sunday evening around Aspen and Snowmass to a winter storm warning, with up to 16 inches in the higher mountains by Tuesday morning.

Holiday travelers should expect another difficult go of it through this evening along Interstate 70 and other northern and central mountains, according to the NWS and Colorado Department of Transportation.

The weather service changed its forecast to a winter storm warning at about 4:30 a.m. Sunday and increased the expected snow totals. The warning went into effect at 9 p.m. Sunday, and the heaviest snowfall is predicted to fall Christmas morning.

"Our confidence in the snowfall amounts got high enough overnight to issue a warning," NWS meteorologist Ben Moyer said Sunday from the Grand Junction office. "With a watch, it can go either way. … In the Aspen area, it will be more like 4 to 8 inches in the valley, but up above in the 8-to-16-inch range in the higher mountains."

The NWS said in its winter storm warning that "snowfall will increase (Sunday) evening and continue through about sunset Christmas Day. Snowfall will be heavy at times with 8 to 16 inches of total accumulation expected. Northwest winds of 20 to 35 mph will cause areas of blowing and drifting snow, decreasing the visibility to around a half-mile at times."

Recommended Stories For You

Before the storm rolled in, the Aspen resorts were filled Sunday morning with skiers and snowboarders enjoying a bluebird start to the day after a stormed rolled out late Saturday night.

Strong winds Saturday canceled three flights at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, according to an airport official, and diverted seven others on a day when a record number of flights were scheduled. The weather service reported an 81-mph wind gusts near Aspen at 7 p.m. Saturday, and high winds are expected again into Monday afternoon. The NWS said gust in the area could reach 40 mph today.

Three flights Sunday were canceled and others delayed. Flight information is updated regularly on the airport's website aspenairport.com.

Fil Meraz, director of facilities and snow removal at the airport, said crews would start pretreating the runway Sunday night to "get ahead of the storm."

"We'll get out there and attack it right away," Meraz said Sunday afternoon. "We'll start at 2 a.m. (Monday) to remove the snow, or earlier if we need to. … It's a challenge, especially when the wind is blowing. You remove it and go back and it's covered again."

Areas included in the winter storm warning through Monday afternoon include the Gore and Elk mountains, central mountain valleys and West Elk and Sawatch mountains, including Aspen, Snowmass, Vail and Crested Butte, according to the weather service.

"Be prepared for significant reductions in visibility at times. Winds gusting over 40 mph will cause areas of blowing and drifting snow," the NWS said in the winter storm warning. "All roadways will become icy and snow packed. Vail Pass in particular will experience difficult and dangerous driving conditions at times."

After weeks of unusually dry conditions, Moyer said the pattern finally shifted late last week.

"The upper level ridge of high pressure that has been parked over the West Coast … has deamplified and the flow is a little straight and allowing the jet stream flow allow more south and bringing moisture off the Pacific directly into Colorado."

Saturday's storm in central and northern Colorado also shut down stretches of I-70 between Vail and Denver, and shelters were opened in Vail overnight for stranded motorists. After a break Sunday morning, the route in the central mountains is expected to be treacherous overnight and most of the day Monday.

The storm that hit the Aspen area Thursday, which was the first day of winter, brought traffic to a standstill into the evening up and down the Roaring Fork Valley.

dkrause@aspentimes.com