High elevation snowpack refers to of the amount of snow that piles up in the mountains during the winter. It is measured by how much water you would have if you took a column of snow and melted it—the “snow water equivalent” (SWE). In Colorado, human communities and ecosystems alike rely on snowpack to help supply the water we need to survive, and high elevation snowpack also provides critical habitat for wildlife throughout the winter.
Snowpack in the Colorado mountains is measured by the SNOw TELemetry network (SNOTEL). For this indicator, we look at the SWE for Colorado SNOTEL sites measured on April 1st of each year—the time in Colorado when snowpack is usually near its deepest for the winter.
Moderately low: April 1st snowpack the past five years was lower than average, although similarly low snowpack periods have occasionally occurred within the climate record for this watershed. Low snowpack years can have a variety of impacts on forest systems including decreased runoff and streamflow and earlier melt dates in the spring.
Snowpack drives the timing of many natural events in forests, as well as providing much of the water supply in Colorado. A low snowpack year means less water available for both human and natural systems throughout the warm seasons, but a high snowpack year can make it difficult for animals that forage for grasses to survive the winter. When abrupt year-to-year changes in snowpack occur, local ecosystems can become stressed, and one just dry year can have lasting impacts even if wet years follow. Additionally, snowpack ties into fire risk, with low snow winters contributing to longer fire seasons, while during the winter itself, a low snow season can impact Colorado's economies that rely on skiing to support jobs.
Compared to previous decades (1971-2000), recent April 1st SWE has varied between being below or above average, with no clear overall trend. However, as climate change drives a continued rise of temperatures in Colorado, a larger percent of our winter precipitation may come as rain, rather than as snow. This could lead to reduced snowpack throughout winter or earlier snowmelt in the springs. When snow is sparse, it may be tempting for many people to start enjoying hiking or biking trails earlier in the spring, but during low-snowpack years it is especially important that we help reduce stress on forest wildlife by respecting seasonal closures of trails, preventing pets from chasing wildlife, and learning about the pressures plants and animals may face under changing conditions.