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'We Broke A Lot Of Records': State Climatologist Reflects On Extreme Weather In Colorado

Snow covers rocks and a few trees along a shoreline
Luke Runyon / KUNC
Snow falls on Horsetooth Reservoir on Tuesday, Sept. 8.

As you’ve probably noticed, we've been having some crazy weather here in Colorado recently. From extreme heat, with poor air quality and record-breaking fires, to snow, all in a matter of days.

Russ Schumacher, director of the Colorado Climate Center and Colorado’s state climatologist, joined KUNC’s Colorado Edition to explain what’s going on.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Henry Zimmerman: Let’s start with this snow. How rare is it to see snow this early in September?

Russ Schumacher: It’s really rare. In Fort Collins, it’s the earliest we’ve ever had measurable snowfall in September, with records at our weather station on the CSU campus going back to the late 1800s.

Some places have had earlier snow like Denver a couple of times. But this is remarkable because we’ve seen it, not just a local snow here along the Front Range, but the snow has swept all the way down through southern Colorado. It’s really kind of all the numbers we look at — it’s pretty unbelievable, we have a history of snow in September, but never this early and never this much.

Over the past few weeks, did we break any records in terms of heat?

We broke a lot of records.

Most of the stations here on the northern Front Range, here in Fort Collins we had our latest 99, we didn’t quite make it to 100, but it was our latest 99 we have ever seen, the previous record was set last year on September 2.

Denver saw its latest 100. We had the highest temperature ever recorded in September in Colorado in La Junta, in southeast Colorado on Sunday. And so all sorts of heat records statewide, and then this really abrupt shift to the cold and the snow.

When we talk about extreme weather, I think we also have to talk about climate change. Record breaking fires, extreme heat one day, snow the next, is this an example of climate change?

So I think the extreme heat we’ve seen, not just here in Colorado but across the Southwest over the last month and a half, there’s no doubt in my mind that that’s been made worse as a result of the climate being warmer. And just warmer and drier summers across the Southwest has been something that climate scientists have suggested was likely, and I think we’re seeing that this summer.

Now the shift from the extreme heat to extreme cold within the matter of a couple of days, connecting the dots there is more complicated. There are potential reasons why these extreme shifts might become more common in a warmer climate. One being that essentially, we’ve built this huge dome of high pressure and heat over the West this summer, and if we go back to a roller-coaster analogy, what we may be doing is essentially making that roller coaster a little bit steeper, and thus when the low pressure systems that bring the cold air around it, might be diving down a steeper down-slope here into Colorado, and really increasing those rapid changes.

But this is an active research topic that a lot of people are looking at to try and understand what to expect from these kinds of shifts in a warmer climate. But the bigger story of the extreme heat across the West very much has a fingerprint of climate change on it.

What do you expect to come in the next several years in terms of extreme weather?

These kind of seasonal predictions or multi-year predictions are always hard to make.

I don’t think the summer monsoon rains have been permanently shut off or anything like that. So we’ll have wet years and wet summers again, not every year will be like this year. But that being said, what we expect in a warmer climate is that what we thought was a hot year in the past may become more of an average year going forward.

And there are probably more extremes on the horizon, maybe ones that we haven’t even come to fully understand yet.

Can you give us a sense of what to expect in the next few days or weeks in terms of Colorado weather? Are we going to warm up again?

Yes, it looks like we’re headed back to something that we should expect in September, with temperatures in the 70s or 80s here by the weekend, and generally drying out again by the time we get to the weekend. The snow will be a memory pretty quickly.

This interview is from KUNC’s Colorado Edition from Sep. 9. You can find the full episode here.

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
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