Western Slope in line for a wetter-than-normal July
The wet weather comes after the area has seen hotter and drier weather contributing to more frequent Red Flag warnings to start the summer.
There have been five Red Flag warning days so far this year in Routt County, four of them coming last week when the Muddy Slide Fire started and grew.
These warnings have come at a faster pace than last year, as the National Weather Service in Grand Junction issued just nine Red Flag warnings that affected Routt County in all of 2020.
They are frequent to the west as well, as Moffat County has seen 18 such warnings already in 2021, nearing the 25 issued all of last year.
“We are running a bit ahead of normal as far as Red Flag warnings issued,” said Jeff Colton, a meteorologist with the NWS in Grand Junction. “Obviously, Routt County is ahead of schedule as well from where we normally would be.”
The warnings take into account a variety of metrics, including humidity, wind, how long conditions are forecast to last and how dry some of the fuels, like grasses, are in an area. When issued, the warnings mean conditions make fires more likely to start and spread.
Still, Colton said it is hard to say whether the increased prevalence of these warnings this year is a direct sign of changing climate, as one strong winter could keep fuels wet enough for long enough to avoid them this early in the year.
“Every year is different,” Colton said, remembering two years ago when there was an above normal snowpack and hardly any Red Flag warnings issued. “A lot of our Red Flag warnings are snowpack driven.”
But while last week saw several Red Flag warnings, Mike Weissbluth, a local meteorologist who runs the forecasting website SnowAlarm.com, said he doesn’t anticipate any such warnings this week, as both the short- and long-term outlooks forecast wetter weather than normal for this time of year.
This trend has already started, with rain in recent days boosting flows in the Yampa River through Steamboat Springs back above 200 cubic feet per second Sunday. On average, Steamboat gets about 1.6 total inches of rain in June, and the area saw almost half that since Thursday.
“Out of these last three days, I recorded 0.8 inches at my house,” Weissbluth said. “We’re probably getting to about half of our (average monthly total) in three days, so this has certainly been a wet period.”
Thunderstorms are expected to move over the area throughout the week, Weissbluth said, and unlike some dry storms that brought increased fire risk with lightning last week, he expects each of these storms to have rain that makes it to the ground.
The current moisture is not from monsoonal activity that often brings summer rain to the Western Slope, although not for three of the last four years. Current moisture is actually being driven by a high-pressure ridge over the West Coast that is causing record heat there. This has the jet streams coming almost straight down from Canada, Colton said, keeping the Yampa Valley cooler and wetter than normal.
Later in the week, the flow switches back toward the south, and from Wednesday through the weekend, the area could see heavy rain and thunderstorm activity each day.
The increased moisture over the next couple of weeks could even curb some of the drought conditions on the Western Slope, including almost all of Northwest Colorado, which is in the highest level of exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“If we see several inches of rain on the West Slope, we should see some improvement,” Colton said. “It would be slow. I wouldn’t expect anything to drastically be switched around.”
There are early indications that the Rocky Mountains may see monsoonal moisture this year, as the long-term outlooks from the Climate Prediction Center are projecting next month to be wetter than normal across most of the Western Slope.
“It is not clear what the final answer is going to be, but there is a chance that we can get some good monsoonal flow out of this,” Weissbluth said. “So there’s hope of a wetter-than-average July at this point.”
Steamboat isn’t really in the direct line of most monsoonal weather, Colton said, as many of the storms will typically taper off further south near Interstate 70. Still, there is a lot of instability and moisture in the longer-range weather patterns that bode well for the Yampa Valley’s chances.
“Right now, the way this thing is setting up, it looks like a fairly active start to July,” Colton said. “Then we may slow down and dry back out, but the next month or so, we are looking pretty good.”
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