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Dry Soils And Drought Mean Even Normal Snowpack Can’t Keep Up With Climate Change In The West

Dry Soils And Drought Mean Even Normal Snowpack Can’t Keep Up With Climate Change In The West

Brian Domonkos straps on a pair of cross-country skis and glides through the trees along Mosquito Creek west of Fairplay.

It’s May, but there’s still snow in Colorado’s mountains near the headwaters of the South Platte River.

Domonkos, the Colorado Snow Survey supervisor, gets to work measuring how much snowpack is left from the winter to runoff into streams, rivers and reservoirs this summer. These mountains trap snow in a natural reservoir. As it melts, it becomes the primary source of water for Colorado and much of the West.

Climate change is disrupting this delicate system in multiple ways. The overall trend shows less snowpack accumulation due to warmer temperatures. What does collect melts sooner and faster, which means less snow on the ground and a greater chance for wildfires.

To measure the snowpack, the total seasonal accumulation of snow on the ground, Domonkos skis to specific points on what’s called a snow course. He then jabs a tall metal pipe into the snow to collect a core sample.

“We're actually gonna weigh the snow tube set and the amount of snow that we captured in that sample, we'll then know how much water is in the snowpack at that exact point,” Domonkos said.

The snowpack at the South Platte’s headwaters is over 110 percent of normal levels for this time of year, but that’s not the case for the rest of the state. In southwest Colorado, it’s less than 40 percent in areas that are already experiencing a historic drought.

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