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Despite two sub-zero episodes, Colorado’s 2021-22 winter was above average—again


Colorado’s Front Range, eastern plains, and other areas had a couple of cold snaps in February and early March. A new record cold was set one night at DIA.

Some people even began wondering if it was cold enough to kill bark beetles. (Mostly no, as temperatures need to plunge to 30 below and stay cold, like those days in the 1970s and 1980s when the temperature never got above zero).

In the context of a warming climate, though, these cold snaps were blips.

This winter—defined as December, January, and February—“still ended up well warmer than average, mostly because of the incredibly warm December,” reports Russ Schumacher, the Colorado state climatologist.

Februaries of late have bucked the overall warming trend. Statewide, the last four Februaries have been colder than the 20th century average, he says.

“But these have not been record-level cold months,” he added in an e-mail.

The February State of the Climate summary issued by Schumacher’s office at Colorado State University reported that February was 4.1 degrees Fahrenheit below the 1991-2020 average. That was good enough—or at least cold enough—to rank 30th coldest in the 128-year record.

Colorado temp rankings FebruaryJeff Lukas, a climatologist based in Lafayette, Colo., points that “late winter and early spring weather in eastern Colorado has always been subject to large daily to weekly fluctuations in temperature as air masses from the Canadian Arctic periodically intrude from the north.”

The Arctic is also warming, even more rapidly than the continental United States, he adds, but still gets very cold during winter.

Lukas also points out that Denver during the last few decades has had similar or even more severe late-February cold waves in 2003, 2006, 2018, and 2021.

The cold of early March was actually exceeded by one in 2002. You might remember that year. Spring was warm and windy, and three major wildfires broke out during the first week of June. The Hayman Fire remains the 4th largest and Missionary Ridge the 7th largest in Colorado’s recorded history.

Winter is still winter, and it can sometimes be severe. The New York Times reported about two teachers and their children from India hoping to cross the Canadian border into North Dakota who froze to death. The trend, however, is to moderation.

In a recent column in the Washington Post Becky Bolinger, the assistant Colorado state climatologist, directed attention to updated state climate summaries that tell of decreased nights classified as very cold, especially since the 1990s. That includes Colorado.

“In addition to the overall trend of higher average temperatures, the number of very hot days has been above average since 2000 and the number of very cold nights has been near or below average since 1990,” Colorado’s summary says.

In snowpack depth, according to that same report, there have been slight declines in northern Colorado. Southern Colorado had a much greater decline. The average April 1 snow-water equivalent has been 9.7 inches since 2000. That compares to 12.3 inches for 1937-1999.

Allen Best
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