DENVER - August snows closed two scenic mountain roads and dusted the high peaks with powder on Friday, but the early storm doesn’t necessarily signal that Colorado is in for a drought-busting winter.
It’s too early to say whether the rainy summer across most of eastern Colorado will turn into a snowy winter and break a five-year dry spell, climate experts said. “It really is going to take a whole season of good snow across the West to provide relief anywhere,” said climate specialist Michael Hayes of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Melting snow provides about 80 percent of the water in Colorado’s rivers and lakes. Many peaks above 11,000 feet in the central and northern Rockies got snow late Thursday and early Friday, National Weather Service meteorologist Ed Szoke said. Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, the nation’s highest continuous paved highway, was closed by ice and 2 ½-foot drifts until late Friday afternoon. The road reaches 12,000 feet above sea level. “I don’t know that every year we have a snow day in August, but with the weather we’ve been having this year, it hasn’t surprised anyone we got snow last night,” park spokesman Larry Frederick said. Colorado 5, which winds to the summit of 14,256-foot-high Mount Evans, also closed Friday. Rain has been above average in many parts of eastern Colorado this summer, but the western part of the state is still dry and precipitation remains about an inch below normal there, State Climatologist Roger Pielke Sr. said. “We’ve just been fortunate in eastern Colorado,” he said. The rain helped stretch the state’s limited water supplies and dampened the wildfire danger. But “to really try to get rid of all the impacts of the drought, we really need a snowy winter in the mountains,” Pielke said. Forecasters and climate experts are uncertain about whether El Nino will bring more snow to Colorado this winter, Hayes said. El Nino, an abnormal warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean, changes weather patterns and brings moisture to the southwestern states. Colorado, especially the southwestern part, could benefit from an El Nino winter, he said. It won’t be until about April 1 — when the snow pack has peaked — that the state will know if it has broken the dry spell, Hayes said. But the early snowstorm can only help. “It’s great for morale,” he said. “Sometimes that’s all that’s needed, particularly in states like Colorado that really depend on winter snowfall and winter tourism.” On the Net: Colorado Climate Center: http://ccc.atmos.colostate.edu Drought Monitor: http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm Colorado Department of Transportation: http://www.dot.state.co.us