Mild Weather May Have Messed Up Your Ski Plans, But Not Yet A Cause For Concern

Feb 20, 2015

Melted snow on the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie.
Credit Caroline Ballard

Southeastern Wyoming may be seeing heavy snow this weekend, but if you have tried skiing there over the past month or so, you may have run into a problem: dirt. With temperatures consistently in the 40s and 50s and little precipitation, snowpack in this part of the state is well below average. 

Cross country skiing on the icy slush isn't fun. Just ask Matthew Klump, a sophomore at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He’s just finished  skiing a Valentine’s Day weekend race at Happy Jack, and is recounting the race with some of his teammates.

“It hadn’t snowed in a while so it had iced over and it was pretty tough,” he says. Tough conditions meant a nasty end of the race for Klump. “On all the corners you had be careful.  And on this last corner I came down it and lost my balance so my upper body went back. I threw my hands up and I corrected, and I went face first into a snow bank.”

This winter’s warm temperatures and low precipitation have made icy slush pretty common in this part of Wyoming. The Holiday Hurrah, another race that took place at Happy Jack back in December, also had poor conditions. The State Parks Ice Festival normally takes place in Cheyenne at the end of February, but was cancelled due to “unseasonably warm weather.” And snow pack is way, way down in the Southeast, at about 75% to 85% of normal levels.

We have had 9 Januaries that were warmer in the past, and I can't exactly remember when those were. But oftentimes people's memories with snow and water and everything, it's often a really short window.

  Many people think of Wyoming as a winter playground – cross country and downhill skiing, snow-shoeing, snowboarding, ice fishing. These activities are more difficult when it’s brown. That may be a bummer for snow lovers, but how unusual is it?

“That first couple weeks in February was tracking what it would be like in a warm March,” says Chris Nicholson, director of the Wyoming Water Resources Data System. He says this January was the state’s 9th warmest on record, but our surprise at this kind of weather might also be a symptom of our own short term memory.

“We have had 9 Januaries that were warmer in the past, and I can’t exactly remember when those were. But oftentimes people’s memories with snow and water and everything, it’s often a really short window,” he says. And according to Nicholson, a few weeks of warm temperatures by themselves don’t necessarily mean too much. After all, weather can vary a wide degree over the course of the winter and across the state. For example, in Northwestern Wyoming snowpack is far above average right now.

But if warm weather persists in the southeast, it could be a cause for serious concern.

“The year our snow pack is gonna be down and that has pretty big ramifications for the irrigation season later in July August September,” says Nicholson. Ramifications like drought and low water levels.

Jim Fahey works as hydrologist at the National Weather Service’s office in Riverton tracking snow melt and streamflow. He says eastern Wyoming may be off to a slow start as far as snow pack is concerned, but the crucial months for monitoring precipitation are March, April, and May.

“As far as precipitation numbers there’s stations that can get up to 50% to 55% precipitation for the year in that 3 month period east of the continental divide,” says Fahey. Which means scientists like Nicholson and Fahey won’t really be concerned about water levels for at least a few more weeks. There’s still a good possibility that the air will freeze, the snow will fall, and Wyoming’s eastern snow pack will once again be deep and powdery.

But if you are suiting up for the slush, you might want to be a little more careful.