Updated: January 5, 2014 at 2:40 pm
An icy blast of arctic air hit the Pikes Peak region Saturday, leaving snow that caused slick, dangerous roads and delayed flights out of the Colorado Springs Airport.
The snow is expected to be replaced by frigid temperatures Sunday, but even as the snow created headaches for travelers, it came as a welcome sign for drought-wary climatologists.
Twenty-one flights were delayed at the Colorado Springs Airport and four flights were canceled as of 7:30 p.m., said John McGinley, the airport's assistant director of operations and maintenance. Airlines had difficulties de-icing plans and getting to the runway for takeoff, McGinley said, and he predicted more delays and cancellations into the night.
Auto crashes affected parts of Interstate 25 on Saturday afternoon, particularly around S. Academy Boulevard where a five-vehicle crash left a semi on its side and four people hospitalized.
Two vehicles also crashed into electrical equipment, leaving about 2,700 people without power in north Colorado Springs for a couple of hours Saturday. One of the outages also affected a pump station, temporarily leaving some customers without water, said Colorado Springs Utilities spokeswoman Cheron Cole.
The airport received 3.5 inches of snow - more than half the monthly average for January. Six inches fell northeast of Monument, while 5.4 inches of snow fell at The Broadmoor, according to the National Weather Service.
The storm system was part of a massive blast of arctic air that affected much of the nation - dropping temperatures lower than they've been in decades across the Midwest and New England.
"For us, relatively speaking, we're going to be seeing a glancing blow compared to what the rest of the nation is seeing," said Steve Hodanish, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Pueblo. "We're just on the far western edge of it."
The storm made for an encouraging start to the new year after a respite from drought and perilous wildfire conditions in the second half of 2013.
Precipitation in Colorado Springs last year finished 2.68 inches ahead of its 30-year average of 16.54 inches - due, in large part, to a particularly strong monsoon season, according to National Weather Service records.
Whether the trend continues in 2014 remains in question.
"Really what you're seeing is just a temporary fix to a long-term problem," said Larry Walrod, a senior meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Pueblo.
Buoyed by a powerful monsoon, El Paso County went from extreme and exceptional drought conditions in July to largely drought-free by year's end, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
The Springs had less than 4 inches of precipitation from Jan. 1. through July 1 - then about 15 inches over roughly the next three months, weather service records show.
The Pikes Peak region often receives less precipitation than other parts of the state in the spring and early summer, said Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist at Colorado State University's Colorado Climate Center. But the Palmer Divide and the Pikes Peak massif help direct and conduct thunderstorms in the region as monsoonal moisture juts up from the Gulf of Mexico, he said, leading to higher rainfall totals in late-summer and fall, he said.
"This year, it's going to take a few months of dry windy weather to get the trees back into high fire danger mode," Doesken said.
But the effects of years of prolonged drought are difficult to reverse, Walrod said, and troubling signs returned in late 2013.
Below-average snowfall in November and December left the region with less than an inch of new moisture since the monsoons ended, weather service data show.
Snowpack in the Arkansas River Basin is at 95 percent of normal, according to preliminary assessments, Walrod said.
But reservoirs in that basin are at 66-percent of average, he added, due to lacking snowfall in previous years. For every healthy reservoir - Clear Creek and Pueblo reservoirs are above 100 percent of average - others lack water.
Twin Lakes Reservoirs are at 66 percent of their average, while John Martin Reservoir is at 21 percent.
And already, grass fuels along the plains are dry, Walrod said.
"A lot of the ranchers out on the eastern plains that are still seeing dust with every cold front... they're still thinking 'Oh no, we're still in the thick of this thing.'"
La Nina and El Nino-neutral conditions dominated much of 2013, Doesken said, leaving weather patterns unpredictable. This year is slated to trend slightly toward an El Nino pattern - meaning a warming of the Pacific Ocean and possibly more moisture for southern Colorado.
But even that's hard to predict.
"We'll just have to take it one storm at a time," Walrod said.