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An old-timer’s look at Aspen’s winters

Jim Markalunas
Aspen, CO Colorado

I read with interest a recent letter by Gerry Terwilliger of Basalt entitled “Don’t let your short memory fool you” (Feb. 5). Gerry made some good points, and most of them I concur with. As an old-timer in Aspen, having just spent the past week shoveling a lot of snow from my roof, I have had time to contemplate the vagaries of the weather. Mother Nature is fickle, as the weather records will bear out. But, I believe, our climate is in a state of change and has influenced the past two months of constant snowfall, which was preceded by a warm November.

In looking back over the weather records of the past 55 years, I have noted that “big snows” (herein defined as: 12 inches or more in a single storm event within the town of Aspen) have occurred on an average of 40 big snows within a 55-year time period from 1950 to 2005.

Based of these records, the probabilities of a big snow are as follows: A big snow will occur at least once a year, or three out of every four years; and twice a year, once every seven years. The odds of three big snows in a single year are once every 20 years. The odds of four big snows in a single year are even greater, occurring only once in a half century. Yet, during these past two months we have received three big snows!

Monumental “hundred-year events” have only occurred twice in the recorded events of Colorado weather; this being the 1899 super snow storm that blockaded Hagerman Pass on the Colorado Midland Railroad at the end of the 19th century. This snow storm has become the most fabulous railroad legend recorded in Colorado history; the stuff that historians love to write about. This same single storm event put Ruby, Colo., in the record books. It is purported that 141 inches (over 10 feet) fell in this single storm event of March 1899. The other “hundred-year event” occurred at Silver Lake, Colo., in April 1921, when 75 inches fell in 24 hours. Another fabulous snow storm was the December blizzard of 1913 that buried Denver under nearly 4 feet of snow. The Eastern Plains get big ones about every 10 years. Do you recall October of 1997 with no flights to Aspen and the Christmas blizzard of 1982 when “Pena Plows” were stuck in the streets?

In Aspen, the most memorable single snow storm I can recall was in March of 1965, when more than 65 inches fell in one week, collapsing the old Tomkins Hardware and closing Highway 82 in Snowmass Canyon. The Alaska blaster in 1989 with its bitter cold temperatures certainly killed the pine beetles. The winter of 1983-’84 is memorable, because winter started early and ended very late. Two hundred and seventy-eight inches were recorded in Aspen ending with an terrible June 8 snow storm that broke down hundreds of trees. I hope we never have a repeat of that event! December of 1951, February of 1936 and March of 1918 are some of the legendary storms that old-timers often talked about.

Memorable anomalies are big snows in June of 1979 and 1984. The Labor Day snow of 1961 caused extensive tree damage and power outages. And yes ” it rained on Christmas Day in 1971, and snowed many times on Easter Sunday and twice on the Fourth of July.

It seems the weather pendulum now swings more extremely than in years of old. Storms are more violent but less frequent.

The weather appears to be more volatile than in past years. I attribute this phenomenon to the global warming effect. Warmer winters and extended summer droughts with violent spring tornadoes seem to bear this out. I believe we will see greater extremes of weather in this new century. Unless we decrease carbon dioxide emissions, a ski rack on an SUV might become a useless accessory and pine beetles will continue to deforest our state.

Let’s hope the recent big snows come to an end, as I’m tired of shoveling snow off my roof! My advice to all is: Drive slowly, shovel your roof and think spring! Let’s pray for some warm sun to ease the snow melt over the next few months, as we still have most of February and all of March to cope with. If we receive an average snowfall during February, March and April, we will exceed 200 inches, which is far above our average of 152 inches a year, thereby placing this winter season in the record books.


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