Winter making early exit in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Winter making early exit in Aspen

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Golfers have replaced cross-country skiers at the Aspen Golf Club, and locals were wandering about town in shorts and T-shirts during a weekend heat wave that resembled summer more than spring.

Winter was late to arrive in the Colorado mountains, and it’s apparently making an early exit, boosting tan lines but creasing the brows of those who watch the state’s snowpack with an eye toward summer water availability and fire danger.

Twenty percent of Colorado’s annual snowpack typically accumulates in March, according to Mage Skordahl, assistant snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver. The state typically hits its snowpack peak in early to mid-April. Instead, the snowpack has been eroding.

Statewide, the snowpack stood at 81 percent of average at the start of March and had dropped to 71 percent of average by Friday, Skordahl said.

The Roaring Fork Basin was looking good by comparison, at 78 percent of average on Monday.

“That’s good,” Skordahl said. “It hasn’t melted out as much as it looks like from down low.

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Still, the snow-measuring site at 10,600 feet on Independence Pass, southeast of Aspen, dropped from 40 inches of snow on March 20 to 34 inches by Monday. And the high temperature at the high-elevation site hit nearly 56 degrees on Friday.

It was much the same story at other measuring stations around the basin. On McClure Pass south of Carbondale, for example, the snowpack dropped from 34 inches on March 20 to 27 inches on Monday, and Sunday’s high at the site was 61 degrees. The McClure station is at 9,500 feet.

After a dip in temperatures and gusty winds early this week, with a slight chance of precipitation, even higher temperatures are in store for Aspen this weekend, according to Paul Frisbie, forecaster with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. The resort could see 70 degrees on Saturday, he predicted.

The weather service doesn’t have data to substantiate record highs in Aspen, according to Frisbie, but the bloggers at aspenweather.net said Saturday’s high of 67 at the airport was a record for the date.

Elsewhere in western Colorado, Grand Junction hit 79 degrees Sunday, beating the record of 75 set in 1940. The high in Steamboat Springs on Sunday was 69, beating the 1989 record by 8 degrees.

Sunday’s high temperatures and low humidity, combined with gusty winds, resulted in a red-flag warning for Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties, which means open burning is restricted. Red-flag warnings were in effect along Colorado’s Front Range, all of the Eastern Plains and lower elevations in western Colorado on Monday.

Several people with burn permits in the Aspen Fire District have been instructed to hold off until conditions improve, according to Fire Marshal Ed VanWalraven. Fire officials are cautiously watching what could be an early drying of the landscape, he said.

“Everybody I speak to who has any knowledge of the situation is kind of nervous,” VanWalraven said.

It’s too early to say whether drought conditions are on the horizon, but it’s on the minds of those who contemplate such things.

“We’re starting to whisper it, but it’s not official,” Frisbie said.

On the ski slopes, spring conditions rule, and bare patches are sprouting up on the lower runs, though Aspen Skiing Co. did report 5 fresh inches of snow at Snowmass one day last week. Snowmass has seen 21 inches of snowfall so far this month.

Snow at the Aspen Water Department monitoring station has been sparse. Six inches fell March 1 and 2, but the plant has seen scant snowfall since then. The 24 inches on the ground at the start of the month has disappeared entirely. Meanwhile, temperatures had eclipsed 50 degrees on 14 days this month as of Sunday and hit the mid-60s Friday through Sunday.

A year ago, the water plant measured 37.1 inches of snowfall in March, significantly higher than the average of nearly 27 inches for the month. Temperatures never climbed into the 60s in March 2011.

janet@aspentimes.com