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El Nio flexes muscle in December

Posted at 8:23 PM, Jan 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-05 22:23:18-05

The 2015-16 El Niño is being called “very strong”, and even “record-breaking”, by meteorologists, but people who live and play in the Colorado snow are using some more colorful names. “Godzilla”, “Monster”, and even “Bruce Lee”, are now common terms in the Colorado high country this season.

The snow stick at Thunder Mountain Lodge in Cedaredge even has a Bruce Lee action figure with its fist clenched 6 inches high, next to the ruler. Bruce spent most of December completely buried in snow. The lodge is located on the Grand Mesa, on the western slope of Colorado near Powderhorn Resort.

A massive snowstorm hit the Grand Mesa in the middle of December. 71 inches of snow fell in an 8-day stretch. Jeff Kieper, owner of Thunder Mountain Lodge, gives some credit to El Niño. “This is the most snow I have ever seen come down in an 8-day span. I think this weather pattern, ‘Bruce Lee.’ El Niño, is very exciting.” He measured a total of 107 inches there in December. The average snowfall on the Mesa for December is 58.2 inches.

Watch the snow pile up at Thunder Mountain Lodge

Topography and wind direction makes all the difference for snowfall in Colorado. Powderhorn Mountain Resort is located just 17 miles west of Thunder Mountain Lodge, on a north facing aspect of the Grand Mesa, and they received 77 inches for December. It’s a difference of 30 inches, but still well above normal and allowed Powderhorn to open ahead of schedule.

Another area of Colorado that exceeded expectations for December snowfall was Steamboat Resort. 101 inches of snow fell at mid-mountain for December. It’s only the ninth time in 37 years that they hit the 100-inch mark for December.

“December has been a ‘Champagne Powder’ snow generating machine, and word about Steamboat's snow continues to spread as fast as it is piling up,” said Rob Perlman, president and chief operating officer for the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. 

The San Juan Mountains and some other areas in southwest Colorado were expected to be the major beneficiaries of the El Niño storm pattern this winter. The official NOAA precipitation outlook for December, with the strong El Niño factored in, had the Grand Mesa right on the edge of equal chances, and Steamboat Springs on the other edge of equal chances - meaning they had just as good of a chance to have below average precipitation, as they did for above average. 

January in Colorado usually sees the least fluctuation from average. As you might expect, the precipitation outlook for January 2016 has a greater spread of equal chances for Colorado, with southern Colorado being the exception. Probability favors a wetter January in the southern counties.