National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) | KUNC

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Last year was the second hottest on record globally, according to the latest climate data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA.

It's the latest confirmation that the Earth is steadily getting hotter — the planet has already warmed about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (or almost 1 degree Celsius) compared with in the mid-20th century — and that robust greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming to continue unabated.

A recent report from NOAA’s National Centers for Environment Information shows there were 14 severe weather events across the country last year costing a total of $89.4 billion. Five of those affected the Mountain West region.

Once again, the world was unusually hot in 2018. In fact, on average it was the fourth-hottest year around the planet since modern record-keeping began in 1880.

If a warming planet were an Olympic sport, fourth wouldn't make the podium. But consider the context: The hottest five years on record are, in fact, the last five years. The year 2016, which was 1.69 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th-century average, holds the top spot, with 2018 at 1.42 degrees F warmer.

Steele Hill / NASA

The government could be heading into another shutdown Thursday, but some of the places deemed too essential to close are seldom heard of, like this windowless office in Boulder. 

It’s a weather prediction center, but not the usual kind. Instead of talking about snow or rain, these forecasters talk about plumes of molten plasma. The winds they watch travel at a million miles an hour. This office specializes in space weather.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

The first official forecast for the amount of water expected in the Colorado River and its Rocky Mountain tributaries this spring is in, and the outlook is grim.

“Well, it’s not looking really great at this point,” says Greg Smith, a senior hydrologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Layers of snow in the Colorado, Wyoming and Utah mountains feed the Colorado River basin. Some regions are reporting the driest start to a winter ever recorded. All of the river’s upper basin streams empty into Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Utah-Arizona border. The lake’s inflow -- all water entering the reservoir -- is anticipated to be 55 percent of average during spring runoff.

Luke Runyon / KUNC and Harvest Public Media

In the summer of 2002, water pumps in Colorado’s San Luis Valley stopped working.

The center pivot sprinklers that coax shoots from the dry soil and turn the valley into one of the state’s most productive agricultural regions strained so hard to pull water from an underground aquifer that they created sunken pits around them.

“This one right over here,” says potato farmer Doug Messick as he walks toward a sprinkler, near the town of Center. He's the farm manager for the valley's Spud Grower Farms. “I came up to it one day and I could’ve driven my pickup in that hole.”

Jackie Fortier / KUNC

Predicting the weather for Colorado is a challenge - but doing it for entire seasons is even harder. According to University of Colorado, Boulder climatologist Klaus Wolter, we are “flirting” with a La Niña.

Scientists use a buoy system in the tropical Pacific Ocean, right around the equator, to relay various real-time weather data, including water temperature. When the ocean is cooler than normal, it’s known as a La Niña.


Colorado saw record warm temperatures in September, with very few late afternoon monsoon storms. The cause? It could be wildfires that burned over 1,000 miles away.

“The smoke actually reduced the temperatures. That’s the one culprit I can point at that maybe interfered with the typical El Niño response,” said Klaus Wolter, a climatologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Wolter’s theory is that smoke from multiple wildfires that burned over 300,000 acres in the Pacific Northwest may have made it difficult for thunderstorms to form in the state.

The Conditions Are Ripe For A 'Super' El Niño

Jul 13, 2015

The United States is currently experiencing the third strongest summertime El Niño since 1950, and it could strengthen.

“Basically since mid-May things have coalesced into a very strong El Niño and I would say we are on the verge of calling it a super El Niño. That may take a few months to be certain, but that’s where it’s drifting,” said University of Colorado-Boulder researcher Klaus Wolter.

“Certainly this is the biggest event since 1997/1998 which was the last super El Niño.”

Jim Hill / KUNC

July 10 is an important date for Colorado. You're forgiven if you don't know why, most people don't. It's the beginning of the Colorado monsoon season – and 2015 is no different.

"That's based on the last 35 years or so of record taking, and you try to spot the first day of the heaviest rain, and July 10th is when that tends to happen most often," said National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Dankers.

The monsoon - a hallmark of late summer weather in Colorado - will be wetter than usual in 2015, Dankers thinks. The storms resulting from tropical moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast that set up almost daily in July and August could be more severe, thanks in part to a record wet spring.