January 9th, 2012 by

When I learned I would be moving to Colorado, I went out and bought some warmer winter gear — boots, coat and everything in between. Two weeks after I moved here, my hometown in Maryland got a storm so unusually severe it was called the “snowpocalypse” (or “snowmageddon,” depending on who you talked to). Expecting to get a great deal more snow of my own, I didn’t think much about it. But here I am two years later, and the most snow I’ve seen at one time is a whopping five inches. In fact, 2011’s snow accumulation in this town was a measly 24.8 inches — far below the average of 42.4 inches a year. So when I saw the words “snow drought” in the news recently, I paid attention.

1/4/2011 snowpack (top) compared to 1/2/2012 snowpack (bottom) (Credit: NOHRSC/NOAA)

Yes, a snow drought is a real thing. It’s not always as easy to see, and its effects aren’t felt all at once, but its implications — especially out here in the Mountain West — can be just as serious as a severe lack of rain. And it isn’t only out west that the problem exists: recent analysis shows that the entire nation is seeing a record low amount of snow on the ground. From 2004 to 2011, each January 4th resulted in as much as 60 percent of the country covered in snow and rarely less than 33 percent. On January 4, 2012, only 22 percent of the country had snow on the ground.

One obvious effect is that ski slopes are taking a hit — a significant economic blow at what is usually their busiest time of year, not to mention rather disappointing to enthusiastic skiers and boarders. But snow in the mountains is good for more than recreation: it becomes the water reserve for much of the country for the rest of the year, feeding into rivers, lakes, agricultural fields, reservoirs and more. Without sufficient snowpack to sustain them throughout the year, a lot of water sources can run dry. California found its snowpack this week to be at only 19 percent of its yearly average, making it one of the driest years on record. Since the snowpack supplies a full one-third of the state’s water for homes, agricultural fields and industries, the current levels are anything but encouraging. Throughout the Midwest, the lack of snow means a lack of insulation for the dormant wheat crops, leaving them vulnerable to extremely low temperatures that could have serious consequences for those farmers and the local economy.

With a few months left in winter, there is still a chance for Mother Nature to catch up, but as to whether or not that will happen and whether we have more of these drastic fluctuations to look forward to from year to year, we’ll have to wait and see.