Record moisture in Colorado...Thanks El Niño?

DENVER - Colorado finally got the massive fall moisture that most El Niño outlooks forecast.

It came in the form of record-breaking rainfall at the lower elevations, and 1 to 2 feet of snow in the mountains, but it might be too early to give the credit to El Niño. 

"We cannot say with confidence that that's the case, when we're talking about El Niño, we're talking about averages," said Nezette Rydell, a meteorologist with National Weather Service in Boulder. She said that weather events that occur this season can't be positively linked to El Niño until an analysis is done at the end of the event.

El Niño was the topic at Friday's forum at C.U. Boulder.

Four experienced panelists from the field of atmospheric science talked about the effects of El Niño focusing on the state of Colorado. Big snow events in the fall and spring, and overall higher than average snowpack is likely for most of the state, favoring the southern and eastern areas.

One of the reasons that higher than normal precipitation in likely, is due to the high probability of reoccurring storm tracks to the south of Colorado. The position of this latest storm on Oct 21-22, was a good example, not perfect, but a decent track to bring high moisture. It's normally called a 'four corners low', because of it's location near the Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico border. 

The counter-clockwise circulation around the low, pulls water vapor up from the Gulf of Mexico and the east Pacific, and feeds it north into Colorado. There, it should meet up with cold air filtering down from Canada, creating ample snow for our state. Only this time around, the temperatures were much warmer than normal, and the lower Front Range ended up with lots of rain instead of big snow.

Those warm temperatures that saved the I-25 corridor from a major snow storm, are also a concern for scientists putting together forecasts for this winter. Martin Hoerling, a meteorologist with NOAA's Physical Sciences Division, reminded the audience at the forum, that it's been 18 years since our last strong El Niño, and that the atmosphere as a whole is much warmer this time around.

"This El Niño is immersed in the warmest phase of our planet, in the record that we have going back to the early 19th century."

Another panelist, Dr. Klaus Wolter, a meteorologist with NOAA's Physical Sciences Division, pointed out that there is variability with each El Niño event, and that something less probable can always occur, but fortunately Colorado is not in as desperate of a position right now as some other areas like northern California. Our drought conditions are low, and our water storage reservoirs are high.

"If we have one of those rare El Niño events that doesn't quite deliver the goods, we will still be in pretty decent shape, so we have a bit of a position of luxury right now."

The seminar was at the University of Colorado, hosted by the Western Water Assessment, which is part of CIRES, a partnership of CU-Boulder and NOAA. It was moderated by WWA research integration specialist Jeff Lukas.

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