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 was lower than average, although similarly low snowpack years 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. Snowpack also ties into fire risk, and Colorado economies that rely on skiing to support jobs. 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.
Compared to previous decades (1971-2000) April 1st SWE has been lower than the average in recent years, although there is not a consistent pattern over time suggesting these less snowy than average winters will continue. Over the past 30 years (and more) of snow observations in the state of Colorado, however, as climate change drives a continued rise temperatures in Colorado continue it is likely that a larger percent of the precipitation that does fall in winter may come as rain, rather than snow. In low snowpack years, we can help reduce stress on forest wildlife by
respecting seasonal closures of trails, preventing pets from chasing wildlife, and learning about these systems and the pressures plants and animals may face under changing conditions.