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Colorado’s drought keeps getting worse, with a quarter of the state now exceptionally dry

The long-term forecast for Colorado doesn’t look good, but experts say context is necessary.

Firefighters from Oregon knock down smoldering stumps near Grand Lake on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. (Pool photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)
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November in Colorado is usually a time for hyping up the winter powder season, speculating on how many snow days students will get and generally looking forward to flaky, fluffy precipitation.

But with almost 25% of the state classified in “exceptional” drought status, as of the latest drought monitor report released Thursday, and little reprieve on the horizon, snow enthusiasts might not want to get their hopes up just yet.

The U.S. Drought Monitor for Colorado from Nov. 3, 2020. Almost a quarter of the state is in “exceptional” drought. (National Drought Monitor)

There is a nugget of good news in this week’s report: The snowstorm a couple weeks ago meant the drought status for some of southern Colorado shifted to “severe” from “extreme,” or to “moderate” from “severe.” 

Still, Colorado has been completely in drought, to varying degrees, since mid-October. The state has had at least some drought since August of 2019, and this November is starting out worse compared to last year. Lackluster snowfall last winter coupled with this summer’s below-average rain have been some of the main factors.

drought comparison nov. 3 2020 to nov. 5 2019
The U.S. Drought Monitor as compared from Nov. 3, 2020 to Nov. 5, 2019. Most of the state has worse drought conditions than it was this time last year.(National Drought Mitigation Center)

“Drought has lingered in Colorado for quite a while now,” said David Miskus, a meteorologist with the federal Climate Prediction Center and author of this week’s U.S. Drought Monitor report.

The weekly analysis is a broad-brush look at the national drought situation and takes into account a handful of indicators, as well as on-the-ground field reports, to determine how different areas should be classified. Miskus called this approach “a convergence of evidence,” where no one index or factor defines the monitor’s assessment. Local conditions may vary from what the map indicates.

The report considers wildfire as one of many potential variables to assess drought in an area, which may at least partly explain why the most severe regions of week’s drought monitor aligns so well with some of the most severe fires this year. 

Wildfires don’t cause drought and vice versa, but drought conditions can exacerbate the impacts of a wildfire season. Low precipitation can lead to drier, weaker vegetation, and with the right weather system and low atmospheric humidity, fires can race across the landscape much easier than they would in a year with ample moisture. The multi-mile runs that the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires made in the past few months are rare in years with less intense drought.

But the drought monitor report isn’t the end-all document for how the state’s climate is doing. Peter Goble, a service climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center, cautioned against assuming too much from any one weekly report.

This is especially true for November. By fall, the most water-intensive operations of the year — namely, irrigating crops — are finished, and a dry winter won’t have the same detrimental impacts as summer drought. As a result, this month is a sort of “wait and see” season for Colorado, as Goble called it, as it’s still too early to tell what the winter will bring. 

The analysis also doesn’t factor in seasonality, especially on regional scales, so future reports may show improvement compared to this week. But the general drought trend — and its long-term impacts, such as dry soils and vegetation — will likely continue until there’s significant precipitation. 

Historically, “exceptional” drought — the worst category — is supposed to indicate drought conditions so severe that they occur no more frequently than once every 50 years. The last time a drought was this pervasive across the state was in the summer of 2013, but that was followed by record-breaking floods in September that devastated many communities, especially on the Front Range.

“Of course, that’s not really the way you want to come out of a drought either,” Goble said.

drought outlook Oct 2020-Jan 2021
The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook from mid-October to the end of January 2021. Colorado’s forecast: “drought persists.” (National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center)

Weather predictions for the next few months in Colorado are not optimistic, to put it lightly — Colorado is forecast to continue its drought-heavy status — but Goble said it’s hard to see much further out than a year. And even forecasts for this winter might not hold true. The region is currently in a La Niña year, and in Colorado, that has tended to correlate with a drier-than-normal winter.

But with climate change making weather patterns more unpredictable, this year may not follow history’s footsteps. The short-term forecast calls for a storm rolling in Sunday through Monday that might bring rain or even snow to parts of the state.

The best thing Coloradans can do, Goble says, is “root for snow.”

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