NASA satellite imagery reveals snow drought in the Rockies

A snow drought doesn’t just make for a bad ski season. If a snow deficit continues into late winter and spring, it can spell trouble for water managers and communities that depend on melt water to fill reservoirs. In parts of the Rocky Mountains, the early and mid-winter of 2017-2018 failed to deliver much snow.

These maps show late January snow cover in a typical year (2016) and in the middle of the recent snow-drought (2018). The maps were made from observations collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Dark blue areas have the most snow cover (100 percent); lighter blue areas have progressively less snow cover. Gray areas show where satellites could not collect data due to cloud cover.

Image acquired January 25, 2016


Image acquired January 29, 2018

As of February 1, 2018, snowpack in the Southern Rockies was below normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration. The Southern Rockies spread across southern Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado—the location of the highest peaks in the range.

News reports from Colorado noted that the snowpack was “on track to be one of the lowest in recent history.” The snowpack across the entire state was 60 percent of normal. Such shortages are a concern, given that people in Colorado and states to the west use the snowmelt from this part of the Rockies for drinking and farming.

The Northern Rockies fared better, with above-average snowpack in parts of Wyoming and Montana, according to the NOAA report. The snowpack in the Central Rockies hovered near or just-below normal.

Experts say there is still time for improvement. Snowpack in the Southern Rockies tends to come from a few big storms, in contrast to more frequent snowfalls to the north. Experts will know more in springtime, when NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) resumes annual flights that use lidar to measure the snow. Data from ASO—characterizing everything from snow depth, snow water equivalent, and albedo—are an important guidance tool for water managers. The ASO team plans to survey California in March, and then head east for a survey over Colorado.

NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS snow cover data from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Story by Kathryn Hansen.

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February 23, 2018 2:08 am

To much snow , proof of climate doom , to little snow proof of climate doom, average snow means thing but could be still be proof of climate doom.
In short there is no condition which cannot be called proof and therefore no condition which can offer disproof.
Its not science, but then this is and has never been about science in the first place , so that is ‘OK’

Reply to  knr
February 23, 2018 8:51 am

Sorry to be an old pedant, but there are 2 o’s in too.
Reminds me of the wonderful 2 Ronnies sketch – got any hoes?

John M. Ware
February 23, 2018 2:33 am

The article keeps using the word “normal” when it means “average” or “usual.” There is no norm for snow cover, any more than there is for temperature or rainfall. As I have before, I cite the instance of dramatist George Bernard Shaw, who (upon advice from friends) visited his oculist for an eye exam. After an exhaustive series of tests, Shaw’s vision was pronounced normal, a very rare condition, according to the doctor. There are certain natural norms, including human body temperature, from which a substantial deviation is a serious or fatal problem. Ice cover is not one of those; there is a long-term average, or range, within which most years’ statistics abide; but it is not a norm.

Reply to  John M. Ware
February 23, 2018 6:32 am

Average is a number that may vary +- with time, events and new data. Normal is a range of numbers that may vary +- with time, events and new data. But then you have to question just who are the “normal” humans and just who are the out-of-normal-range outliers which are always a part of the whole.
Can you spell insipid.

John M. Ware
Reply to  thomasjk
February 23, 2018 6:52 am

No, sir. A norm is a specific number, condition, or datum that can be expected and experimentally established. Normal human body temperature is 98.6 F, from which a significant deviation can kill you. Normal eyesight is 20/20. There are no such norms in weather or climate, only averages or means.
If average monthly rainfall for January is 3.1″, then the average per day is a tenth of an inch. Is that a norm? I hope not; days on which an exact tenth of an inch fall are surpassingly rare; and days on which more or less rain falls than a tenth of an inch are not abnormal. Confusion of terms is common, and in language, a term means something; I merely pointed out this one. Unless you can posit an actual, established, expected norm, from which a deviation could cause trouble, you are setting up expectations impossible to meet with respect to weather and climate, which are in some ways chaotic systems, not subject to “norms.”

Reply to  thomasjk
February 23, 2018 7:02 am

No, that’s not right, and John is pretty much right. Average and normal are used interchangeably when they are not the same at all. It drives me mad in the UK when the BBC says things like “such a place received half its normal monthly rainfall in one day” which implies that the rain “should” fall in equal amounts each day,a nd which uses normal for average.
Norms don’t vary much, and are what “should” be seen when yo measure something. Averages often can never be measured, like the average score of 100 throws of a dice and what “should” be seen when you measure something can vary hugely around the average..

Reply to  thomasjk
February 23, 2018 8:13 am

The term “normal” is used as a universal descriptor. The term “average” is used as non-weighted measure over a limited frame of reference. The former has emotional implications, whereas the latter is precise and reproducible. The conflation of the terms is done with premeditation and regularity to force an emotional association between people’s welfare and weather, and between weather and climate, where the last is a poorly conceived construct in a chaotic system, and leads to confusion and misjudgment about what is “normal” in a human frame of reference.

Reply to  thomasjk
February 23, 2018 9:52 am

Normal/average vary depending on such things as the state of AMO/PDO and the the ENSO state.

Reply to  John M. Ware
February 23, 2018 10:19 am

From decades of weather observations in the Sierra’s I can say in no uncertain terms that ‘normal’ means bouncing between extremes and we rarely have an ‘average’ season.

Reply to  co2isnotevil
February 23, 2018 5:29 pm

The apparent lack of comprehension of “variance” as opposed to “mean” was one of the red flags that diverted me into this debacle .
Here by Pikes Peak it is being an unusually dry year — and that’s always worrisome , But as you say , the distribution has fat tails .

Mike T.
February 23, 2018 2:56 am

One caveat, as always: this is fully within the range of normal variability for the region. Winter of ‘77-‘78 was on the end of the drought ‘70s in southwest Colorado, and we had 40% snowpack. Winter ‘78-‘79 was 400%.
I commuted both years 45 miles through the mountains, so that contrast is burned in my mind.

Alan Tomalty
February 23, 2018 3:46 am

if it never snows all winter long then i will start worrying

Reply to  Alan Tomalty
February 23, 2018 6:10 am

12-inches Monday and its snowing right now. The Monday storm was actually the third big one this winter. Three storms (of moderate intensity) forecast for the next 5 days.

Reply to  KT66
February 23, 2018 8:45 am

We are in a bit of a cold snap here on the Southern California coastal plain – temperatures are below “normal”, according to the NWS. The part that is amusing is that this weather pattern has been labelled a storm by the NWS. At least they didn’t name it. BTW, it “may” rain in about 7-8 days.

February 23, 2018 3:52 am

I doubt there is a year without weather causing trouble for some ‘communities’.
When you add ‘can’, ‘may’, ‘could’, “might’ etc, you are basically telling a dog might have bitten a person. That’s not news.

A C Osborn
February 23, 2018 3:55 am

2018 doesn’t look that much different to me.

Ed Zuiderwijk
February 23, 2018 4:30 am

It appears to me that the label ‘clouds’ is an indication of precipitation. The satellite can’t probe through them but that only means: no data. The absence of proof is no proof of absence. Incidently, I seem to remember that the name ‘Nevada’ has something to do with snow?

Reply to  Ed Zuiderwijk
February 24, 2018 7:53 am

Having “no data” for an area certainly never stopped a global average temperature anomaly from being generated. Just “interpolate” some snowfall numbers based on nearby stations and call it data.

Albert Brand
February 23, 2018 4:50 am

If every deviation from “normal” can result in catastrophe we are really living on the edge. Reduce the population! Sarc

William Astley
February 23, 2018 5:16 am

I guess they did not notice the highest snowfall in record (multiple locations) in the North Rockies.

John Garrett
February 23, 2018 5:21 am

I’ll bet you can guess what National Propaganda (sorry, “Public”) Radio has reported.

February 23, 2018 5:29 am

NASA = Not As Scientific Anymore

February 23, 2018 5:52 am

2017 was a wet yr here in the mid-Appalachians, but Nov 2017 thru the present has been dry. So what? That’s typical variability.

Reply to  beng135
February 23, 2018 6:37 am

“That’s typical variability” and well within the range of normal.

Steve Keohane
February 23, 2018 5:58 am

I live in the Rockies on the western slope in central Colorado, and record precipitation. This winter has been warmer and drier than usual until the end of January, when precip. increased. Last winter from December 2016 to this date in 2017, we had 5.67″ of Snow Water Equivalent (SWE), ie total water content. This winter it is 3.75″. But Feb. 2017 to the 23rd was .85″ SWE and this Feb. is 1.68″ SWE to date. So this ‘drier’ season has twice the Feb. precip. of last year. I have seen it start snowing in March, and end April with five feet of snow on the flat ground, undrifted.

February 23, 2018 6:10 am

Last winter (2016-2017) started with bitter cold and heavy snow, then got warmer and from January through to March, it was mostly chilly, damp, occasionally rainy, foggy, and then we had flooding as the ground warmed up. Lots of flooding. By July, the flooding was profound. New storm sewers were put in.
This winter has followed the same pattern, but not as cold, and the rains have come early. Again, we’re getting flooding. The Kankakee River is up to its brim, flooding where it meets the Iroquois on the way south. I expect to see some flooding in my area, too, but I’m hoping that those new storm sewers will do the trick and not make another mess of things. I’m hoping that the Des Plaines won’t spill over the roads like it did to the west of me last winter.
The good things that come out of this “flooding” include more water in the wetlands around here, which means more food for wading and diving birds, more dragonflies zipping around, eating mosquitoes, and more wildflowers blossoming all year round.
This is nothing but a repeated cycle. It’s happened before and will happen again. The snow cover far to the north of me melts and gets into the waterways and it all flows south. This all used to be farmland, so the silt deposits would make the soil richer. Now, there’s a lot of suburban housing and those people who are silly enough to plant a house in a floodplain get the damage.
It’s just weather, nothing else.

John harmsworth
February 23, 2018 6:13 am

Western Canada (prairie) here and we have very little snow and last year was dry but we hadn’t had a dry year before that for almost 20 which was quite unusual. Yesterday’s weather showed record low for the date in 1937 and record high was 1938. Almost 40C or 72F apart!

Reply to  John harmsworth
February 23, 2018 2:25 pm

Makes it pretty hard to take a .6 to .8 degree C warming/century seriously.

The Deplorable Vlad the Impaler
February 23, 2018 6:22 am

We’ve all seen this kind of variability before. The first year I lived here in central Wyoming, some friends and I went waterfowl hunting. It was ‘end-of-season’ stuff, so we weren’t expecting to see much, and it was an average day of harvest.
It was New Year’s Day, 1981, and early morning, we needed light jackets/windbreakers to stay comfortable; by mid-day, we were hunting in shirtsleeves.
This is not to complain about the ’17-’18 winter: so far, it’s not been bad, but most everyone has noticed the reduced precipitation. I’ve been cautioning my associates about the warm pool of water in the western Pacific, such that if it turns El Nino by March, a wet spring may be on tap. The last wet spring we had, this area received a year’s worth of precipitation in the month of May, after a “below average” winter.
I would appreciate any updates from the WUWT gang on an El Nino watch from the BoM.
Best regards to all,
The Mostest Deplorablest Vlad the Impalerest, a crashing bore-est and an even-est bigger-est bully-est (according to C.T. at Jo Nova)

February 23, 2018 6:32 am

The way it works in the Rockies is that if the western side of the continental divide catches h#ll, then the eastern side usually gets it mild. Or the other way around. This is particularly the case when we get meridian type flow with very wavey jet stream patterns, instead of zonal flow straight in from the Pacific. It has been this way forever. With the wavy patterns, the storm tracks often go “up and over” through the the Northern Rockies and then down the east side of the divide. That is the way it has been this year, with high pressure often camped out over the Great Basin. But recently this pattern has “flip flopped” to quote one of the local TV weather girls. Recently storms have been hitting the west side instead of the east side. March is usually the month we get the most snow.
It is not particularly unusual, the range variation we see here. 2010 had a ton of snow and 2011 was worst than this year so far on the western side. Last year we had a ton of snow during an El Nino year. But this year is post El Nino.

February 23, 2018 6:34 am

Some parts of the country are being washed away in floods–mostly in the areas predicted for drier winter conditions by NOAA. The Al Gore forecasting award goes to…..

February 23, 2018 6:37 am

I live in the NE corner of Wyoming. I’ve been snowed in for more than two months, my car trapped in a drift of snow and ice.
Could I please have some of this global warming? I’m almost out of firewood! (/sarc)

Bob Hoye
February 23, 2018 6:38 am

I live in Vancouver and used to ski a lot at Whistler Resort, some 80 miles north and inland. After the early 1980s, the amount of snowfall declined. Prior to that, there was one March when ten feet of the good stuff fell, and that was in just the first two weeks of the month.
The Sierras in the Lake Tahoe area record even greater snow dumps.
The season is not over.

February 23, 2018 6:46 am
Reply to  ResourceGuy
February 23, 2018 9:03 am

I read that article this morning. It says the low temperatures were “in the low-20’s overnight”. Frost conditions will affect blossoms if they hit 28°F for three hours—so to be in the low 20’s means that there likely will be considerable damage to the citrus, almond, and stone fruit crops due to the prolonged period of time below the crucial 28°F threshold. We’ve seen this in recent years in the upper Midwest, Georgia, the southeastern U.S., Poland, Germany, and other parts of Europe.

February 23, 2018 7:03 am

Been a fair bit of snow in the Vail are the last week or so.

Mark Whitney
February 23, 2018 7:11 am

Snowing now in SLC. We had a good one at the beginning of the week. Don’t pronounce doom just yet.

Brad Grubel
February 23, 2018 7:18 am

Looking out my window on the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake and wondering if I’ll be able to get out due to the snow. Feb started slow, but is coming on strong now. March is traditionally the wettest month here so I wouldn’t panic just yet.

February 23, 2018 7:22 am

Depth is more important than “cover” when it comes snow melt time. Cover can change rapidly here in the Rockies if it is not very deep.

K. Kilty
February 23, 2018 7:25 am

Snow droughts begin and end with a snowstorm.

February 23, 2018 7:34 am

And yet last year people were complaining about too much snow in the Rocky Mountain region. Winter is not even close to over, so snow in Rocky Mountains can still be above average, or a have a drawn out rainy spring. Either way people will complain and blame humans for whatever happens.

February 23, 2018 7:39 am

Too many clouds! [Send In The Clowns.]

Bob Hoye
February 23, 2018 7:42 am

I had the rare experience of skiing at Alta in the 1960s when only about 20% of the skiers could handle the deep stuff. Wrote about Alta and Sun Valley–if interested you could Google Bob Hoye Skiing at Alta. It should come up.

February 23, 2018 7:47 am

Prepare yourselves Front Range people. You number is coming up next.

honest liberty
Reply to  ResourceGuy
February 23, 2018 2:47 pm

I live on the front range in Arvada, just outside of Denver. We’re fixin to get another 2-4 inches tonight, after we just got 4-5 inches yesterday, and 6 earlier in the week. It’s been fun watching all the nitwits from southern states try to maneuver up small hills with front wheel drive hondas.
Anyway, glad to see a bunch of folks on here from out this way.
I’ll say this regarding snowpack: I’m not impressed with the alarmism from the powers that be. This is life in the Rockies. March and April are the heaviest months for precipitation typically, and this past week has been pretty good on the mountains. I’m not concerned. What I am concerned about is government officials operating in bad faith. I say that because the Denver Metro water budget and resource management, according to the Northern Conservation Water District based in Berthoud, Colorado, bases their management plan off the last UN CAGW crapola. I was in the meeting two seasons ago and brought up a very glaring piece of information: According to all the projections, they admitted that it was completely unknown how the precipitation amounts would vary annually moving through the next century onwards. (mind you, Denver is increasing their water pricing in a ten year step). Also, in case anyone was not aware only 3% of the entire state of Colorado water budget is dedicated to domestic/residential water usage, both interior and exterior along the front range cities (it may even have been all Colorado domestic water use but I can’t remember). Now, as someone who cares about conservation, I look at my boss who owned the company and asked “why the hell is Denver so draconian about their water when its a drop in the bucket for total water usage?!” Even he, who lives in Boulder and is a total commie couldn’t believe it. Municipal is gaining steady, trying harder to get a bigger piece from AG, which by the way has the most efficient watering methods.
So I asked the lady, “Does this not strike you as irresponsible?”
She had no idea what to say about that. Then some arrogant fella got up and made some snide comment about CAGW and scoffed…I almost got into it with him but it was certainly not appropriate. Typical Boulderites and modern think they know-it-all progressives. Anyway, I find it very irritating to see these people making decisions that affect everyone, especially poor and middle class, based on projections that even admit they can’t project accurately…and then on top of it parade around like they are saviors or something. The cognitive dissonance that abounds in this era of a saturation of information makes me think the Dark Ages pale in comparison to the ignorance of today. At least they had an excuse.
So, my point, if I had one…I just don’t see this as an issue. We got dumped on early last year in the mountains and we’ll likely get dumped on again this March and April. The other point is that the people in charge out here are a sorry lot of religionists.

Reply to  honest liberty
February 23, 2018 2:50 pm

or pardon..Socialist. I get them confused. Either way he lives in Boulder and buys into all the public radio propaganda that the left heralds

Steve Oregon
February 23, 2018 8:35 am

Why are the “experts” suggesting we need to wait for spring and ASO?
The snow water equivalent data is readily available.
My quick scroll through it tells me things look pretty normal.
But then I am not an expert.
There’s more. That healthy looking upper basin feeds Lakes Powell and Mead.:
Lake Powell up 22.36 ft above last year;
Inflows for WY 2018 are 104.63% of WY 2017;
Rivers feeding Lake Powell are running at 144.87% of the Feb 23rd avg.
Conclusion: Don’t worry, be happy.

John Pickens
February 23, 2018 9:07 am

I know from my friends in Summit County, Colorado that the last three weeks have delivered massive amounts of snow cover. This all happened after the events described in the above article, which only covers up to Feb. 1st. There is usually lots of snowfall between Feb. 1st. and April 30th. in the Rockies.

February 23, 2018 10:21 am

“If a snow deficit continues…” Well it hasn’t continued and it looks like snow will be in the forecast for the next several weeks, if not the next month.
Whenever you see ‘if this tend continues’ in any story, you can bet that the trend, whatever it is, is about to end.

Reply to  jclarke341
February 26, 2018 1:53 pm

Yah our weather casters often invoke the gore effect and look silly.

February 23, 2018 11:34 am

We are in a weak La Nina…don’t plan a ski trip south of I-70…nothing new here.

Pamela Gray
February 23, 2018 2:35 pm

I’m here in the far eastern part of Oregon thinking about 1996. We could be sitting here waiting for a late snowmagedon. What does one month difference make? Very little. If we get this late Winter snow deluge followed by below melt temperatures, followed by an extended Pineapple Express, Portland will have to sandbag itself and Tillamook County will need to evacuate cows.

Jim Clark
February 23, 2018 3:04 pm

Writing from Denver, looks like according to the most recent SNOTEL we’re up to 73% of normal, and it appears more is coming in. Northern Colorado better than Southern by quite a bit.

Craig Moore
February 23, 2018 5:16 pm

Tell the Blackfeet

February 23, 2018 5:33 pm

Here’s a great resource for snow fall totals in the Western US:

February 24, 2018 11:32 am

Unfortunately, we have had no significant snowfalls here this year I live in the Rockies (at 8600 ft) and have not been able to even think about using my Nordic skis this year . . . Yet

February 24, 2018 9:08 pm

Denver Water’s Water Watch Report is showing ~100% snowpack for both the South Platte and Colorado River watersheds. Reservoirs levels are higher than normal thanks to a few very wet years.

February 26, 2018 1:50 pm

here it is 4 days later.. we just got hit by a pretty heavy snow storm. We heard all the stories about not enough snow in the mtns. Its FEB, too soon to call anything a drought. I get so sick of the sky is falling forecasts every year only to have normal to record drops come further into the winter months.

February 26, 2018 9:13 pm

Last year the Utah snowpack was 120 to 150% above normal, and the spring and summer precipitation was near record highs.
At the time, the local experts explained that it was a cyclical thing.
“They seem to be coming every five to seven years, these kinds of large snowpacks,” said Randy Julander with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “It’s been since 2011, previously was 2005, before that was ’97.”:

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