Downpour of the Century

Grace Carey

Colorado has experienced some very abnormal weather this year. In the first week of June alone, the Denver area received almost two inches of rain. This area usually receives about two inches of rain throughout an entire month.

As June ticked past, rain kept falling, prompting meteorologists and scientists to investigate. By the end of the month, Denver received over six inches of rain– shattering the previous record for the wettest June in 1882, when Denver received 4.96 inches of precipitation. The abnormal rain levels haven’t just been specific to June, either. 2023 has been a record year for precipitation for Colorado, and even more rain could be on the way in 2024.

An afternoon rainshower photographed from the top of North Table Mountain in Golden, Colorado. Photo by Mariah Lundgren

The unusually high levels of precipitation have caused quite a stir, leading people to wonder what is causing the frequent downpours.

Colorado weather is dependent on several variables. The Rocky Mountains are the primary player that determine just how much snow or rain the eastern portion of the state collects. Snowpack, or the amount of snow on the mountains, accumulates over the winter before evaporating or melting into rivers in May and June. Snowpack is especially important as Colorado is a headwater state, and surrounding states depend on rivers born from Colorado for municipal use, feeding livestock, and irrigation for crops. This year, snowpack levels were unusually high, resulting in less water soaking into the ground and more runoff into reservoirs, dams, and rivers.

Snowpack gathers on top of Broome Hut over the winter months: November 2021- February 2022.

Storm fronts from the east swirl together with warm, humid air and clouds from the Gulf of Mexico, determining the amount of precipitation the state receives. The warm air cannot move past the mountain ranges that split Colorado in half, leaving western Colorado with very little rain each year–save for the small amount of summer rain provided by monsoons in Mexico. A wildly fluctuating, inconsistent climate results from these interacting variables across the state. This makes strange weather events, such as the high rain levels, even more intriguing.

Seen from the top of Mt. Sneffels, a monsoon forms over the top of the San Juan mountains in western Colorado. Photo by Dave Showalter

While heavy snowpack and the moist air from the Gulf may have serendipitously combined to create this weather phenomenon, climate change could also be the culprit. More dramatic and intense weather patterns are characteristic of a changing climate and in the future, could lead to a permanent change in Colorado’s weather patterns.

The large amount of rain is somewhat of a blessing for residents, as the past few years have been unusually dry. In fact, 2023 was the first time the entire state has been out of a drought zone since 2019. Compared to the massive drought the state faced in 2020, the heavy rain is a welcome visitor.

The state of Colorado is 100% drought-free in July 2023 after facing some perilous months during the drought of 2020. U.S. Drought Monitor.

Cheesman dam drains drastically in May during the 2020 drought.

It seems the stars have aligned just perfectly to give Colorado the downpour of the century. This year, the weather patterns in the Gulf of Mexico have shifted from a La Niña system to an El Niño. El Niño and La Niña represent weather fronts, bringing either warm, moist weather or cool, dry weather. After three years, La Niña has moved away and El Niño has settled into the Gulf, bringing more rain and humid weather to the central United States. As low-pressure air moved north towards Colorado, it was blocked by high-pressure air from the mountains. The low-pressure clouds, bursting with the rain they carried halfway up the country, could not push through and created a concentrated area with lots of storms and rain.

Due to the amount of rain, there was an abundance of wildflowers this spring. Indian paintbrush blooms in the foreground, surrounded by many other species of wildflowers in a tallgrass prairie just south of Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Ethan Freese

Colorado has surpassed the average yearly precipitation level of 17 inches, raking in over 19 inches of precipitation in 2023. Close monitoring of precipitation and snowpack levels has continued throughout the year to determine if climate change had anything to do with the weather patterns. Surrounding states such as Nebraska, Wyoming, and Kansas will no doubt benefit from the high rainfall as rivers and reservoirs burst with water used for the needs of their communities.

Lake McConaughy (left), Seminoe Dam (middle), and Pathfinder Dam (right) are all fed by the North Platte River, born out of the Colorado and Wyoming mountains.

Dave Showalter is a PBT contributor, conservation photographer, author of several books, and has lived in Colorado for the past 30 years. When I spoke with Dave, he offered his thoughts on water use and what extremely wet years like this one could mean for the future.

“The scientific data tells us that after every one of these big years, it’s generally followed by an extremely dry year,” Dave warns.

“Our strategy in the West for water security is to hope that it snows this year,” he says. “We just figure everything’s going to work out fine, and the data tells us otherwise– that we need to change how we use water.”

Dave Showalter has been a friend of PBT since the project’s beginning in 2011. 

This strategy of over-allocation of water during a good year puts a band-aid on a much bigger problem: what happens when there are no more good years? Dave describes what it’s like to be in the mountains during these strange wet and dry periods, saying, “If you spend any time exploring in the mountains, you see it, you feel it, you know that something’s just not quite right.”
Capitalizing on years with heavy snowpack by using water conservatively will help establish water security for the future.

A double rainbow stretches over the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, located in western Colorado, after a heavy rain. Photo by Dave Showalter

Platte Basin Timelapse is a unique project that documents these extreme weather events and changes to the environment. PBT’s timelapse cameras are able to capture the movement of water across the Platte Basin and compare the differences between years at each location, changing the perspective of how people view landscapes and ecosystems.

“It’s just so inspiring to use art that sees the rivers and the land in a different way than people are accustomed to seeing it,” Dave remarks. Referring to the Lake Agnes camera in Colorado, he says, “you see the lake freeze and thaw and snow and rain and it becomes a living, breathing thing. We see that in Mormon Island wetlands and elsewhere in the watershed… and we get the feel that the land is breathing.”

Lake Agnes thaws and ice jams break apart after a long winter. April 2021- June 2021.

PBT has been in motion since 2011 and thus far has observed short-term changes and severe weather events throughout the watershed. However, imagine if PBT’s timelapse cameras were on the landscape for 20, 30, or even 40 years. Measuring water level and snowpack data provide a narrow scope of the issue at hand, yet photos and videos of our natural world are vital to observe how weather patterns change the landscape over time and serve as a tool to educate how the climate evolves.

“We have these tools to give people alternate ways to think,” Dave says, “to inspire, and to turn on lights, change perspectives… it’s truly a gift to have this technology, and be able to share it”.

The value of PBT’s timelapse cameras are priceless, providing insight and real-time updates to biologists, climate scientists, and curious citizen scientists looking to observe our world.

PBTers Mariah Lundgren (left) and her husband Mirzo Mirzokarimov (right) service the Lake Agnes timelapse camera in January 2023. Photo by Ethan Freese

Water has the incredible power to give life, but it can just as easily destroy communities with the force of a hurricane or mudslide. In the blink of an eye, a waterfall can go from a trickle to a roar. If 2023 is in fact to be followed by a decade of drought, water allocation must begin now to protect this precious resource.

Cities are built around water, drawing us in and providing structure to communities. The current pattern of overallocation and overconsumption of water will lead to more severe droughts in the future. Ultimately, using water in a more sustainable way will pave the way for a brighter and greener path for all of humanity.

SHARE THIS

RELATED Stories

PBT team photo. Summer 2023

About PBT

We are a group of storytellers using timelapse photography and multimedia storytelling to explore watersheds. PBT has been in motion since 2011.

Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to hear about stories, projects, and other things we’ve been up to.

You have Successfully Subscribed!