Science Notes

How is Colorado’s Changing Climate Affecting Snowpack?

By Mikkela Blanton

March 2021

The Issue

Colorado’s highly variable climate can be attributed to its unique topography. The Continental Divide splits the state in two, and the elevation and orientation of its mountain ranges and valleys contribute to a diverse range of temperatures and precipitation across the state. Average winter temperatures vary between 16 and 54 degrees Fahrenheit, and snowfall ranges from 60 to 100 inches annually, with higher elevations receiving between 400 and 600 inches.

While these conditions vary widely across the state, Colorado has been experiencing near record-breaking drought and dry conditions that are creating uncertainty in mountain snowpack. This snowpack is essential not only for winter sports lovers, but to creating the healthy flowing rivers that support agriculture, ecosystems, and communities dependent on them.  

The Science

The 2020-2021 winter season has been incredibly dry, showing us what Colorado looks like when affected by a changing climate. These uncertain conditions are likely to become even more common in the future. 

Across the Western United States, snowpack has been decreasing since the 1950s due to earlier melts and less precipitation falling as snow. This winter, drought conditions in the state have been impacting snowpack, reaching only 84% of the average at this time last year

The uncertain winter weather cycles have created some dangerous avalanche conditions, contributing to 33 fatalities so far this season. As time between snow events gets longer, differences appear in layers of snow as newer, stronger snow piles on top of older and weaker snow. 

This winter, Colorado saw an early snowfall that stuck, followed by drought conditions, which created weaker layers of the already existing snow. These conditions affect the safety of the ski season, and a shorter season could mean reduced tourism revenues for towns that rely on the winter sports economy. 

Decreasing snowpack also affects Colorado’s ecosystems and agriculture. Scientists have observed migration changes in both large and small mammals as they move uphill to avoid warming temperatures brought on by a changing climate. These species are allowing scientists to record complex responses to the changing climate in the state and the pressures caused by climate change. 

Snowpack is also important to helping combat large Colorado wildfires, an issue of critical importance after a record-breaking wildfire season. Farmers in Colorado also rely on this snowmelt to help irrigate their crops, making these agricultural producers increasingly vulnerable to climate impacts. 

Possible Solutions

In 2019, Colorado passed HB 1261, the Climate Action Plan, which committed the state to a series of actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. Following this release, Governor Polis’s office released its Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, which outlines sector-specific approaches to achieving the ambitious goals set forth by the Climate Action Plan. Governor Polis’s budget proposal for FY 2021-22 includes a request to create a Climate Resilience Office at the Department of Agriculture and invest $40 million for clean energy finance programs.

Policy from so many sectors falls into the bucket of climate policy, from transportation planning and infrastructure to energy production. Some non-profits, such as Protect Our Winters, understand this and advocate for a wide range of policy in an effort to preserve our winter snowpack. The organization supports legislation on carbon pricing, renewable energy, electrifying transit and protecting public lands. 

The Bottom Line

There is no one policy solution to preserving Colorado’s snowpack. All policy (or lack thereof) that affects climate change also affects how much snow and water we have in the state. A changing climate will bring more uncertain and volatile snow conditions to Colorado, affecting the ecosystems and communities that rely on the state’s natural resources. These impacts are already at play in the state, and planning must be swift to address climate impacts, both now and into the future. 


Impacts in Colorado – University of Colorado Boulder Environmental Center

The Economic Contributions of Winter Sports in a Changing Climate – Protect Our Winters

This Year’s Deadly Avalanche Season – High Country News

Small Mammals Climb Higher to Flee Warming Temperatures in the Rockies – CU Boulder Today

Climate of Colorado – Colorado Climate Center


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: