Winning Winter: 2019 vs 2023
How does our current snowpack stack up to the epic winter of 2018-2019? In the 23 years that I’ve shoveled snow in Pagosa, I can’t remember having to heave so much sloppy slush in late March! But since my memory is fuzzy, I decided to test my recollection against the historic data.
In terms of measuring winter’s bounty, most skiers track the cumulative snowfall over the course of the whole ski season. For example, if Wolf Creek Ski Area exceeds 400 inches for the season, the skiing is heavenly. Yesterday, Wolf Creek Ski Area reported 462 inches for the year and an astounding 163/178-inch base! Despite impressive annual totals, snow settles between storms, and a 100-inch base is envied by most Colorado ski areas.
Since I don’t have access to Wolf Creek Ski Area’s historic dataset, I rely on the Wolf Creek Summit Snotel Site, which is located just west of the Continental Divide at 10,957 feet. The Snotel site was established in 1986, but it wasn’t equipped with a continuous, automated snow depth sensor until 1998.
After analyzing the maximum snow depth for the 25-year dataset, we can expect about 98.5 inches of snow to pile up on Wolf Creek Pass during a normal year. The deepest snow depth recorded at the Wolf Creek Summit Snotel site was 153 inches on 3/14/2019. Yesterday morning, the snow sensor measured 148 inches on the ground, which is 5 inches shy of the 25-year record. This morning, the snow had already settled by 6 inches meaning theres 142 inches on the ground. Other notable winters were 2005 and 2008, with 137 and 136 inches respectively.
At my house near Lake Hatcher (7800 feet), I measured a seasonal max of 53 inches of snow on the ground in my front yard on 2/23/19. On 3/22/23, I measured 46 inches in the same location, which is just 7 inches shy of 2019. Unfortunately, it was raining when I made my measurement so the snowpack may have settled a bit. Also, the low-elevation snowpack is more susceptible to melting between storms.
From a water supply perspective, snow depth is not nearly as important as the snow water equivalent (SWE), which is the amount of water in the snow. Typically, the Wolf Creek Summit Snotel site accumulates about 35 inches of water by May 1st. Today, the automated site is reporting 47 inches of water, which is 1.3 inches above 2019, and 20 more inches of water than normal for this date!
To summarize, the 2019 snowpack was 5 inches deeper, but 2023 has more water in the snow (29% vs 32%). However, there's plenty of time for more snow. If 2023 continues to mirror 2019, we're in for more spring storms. In fact, I got caught in a blizzard while running on May 23, 2019!
If you’re sick of snow, there is some good news: Pagosa resembled Ireland in June of 2019. The stock ponds were full, the meadows were lush, the flowers were phenomenal and the rafting season lasted well into July. That’s great news for our reservoirs and wildfire season!