Warming Temps in Colorado Worsen Existing Issues Like Drought, Climatologist Says

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Russ Schumacher, a climatologist and atmospheric science professor at Colorado State University, said drought is the most noticeable effect of climate change in the state. (Courtesy photo from the Colorado State University’s website)

From 1980 until 2023, statewide annual temperatures in Colorado warmed 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit, a phenomenon of climate change that is likely to exacerbate existing issues in the area such as drought, according to a climatologist.

“The phrase that sometimes gets used now is hot drought, in that the air is warmer,” Russ Schumacher, an atmospheric science professor at Colorado State University, said. “You get these more frequent summer heat waves. That increases the atmosphere’s thirst for water, so to speak. It means that the air is going to want to pull more water out of soil or crops or forests or reservoirs or whatever it might be. So, the increasing temperature is putting more stress on water resources across the board.”

A 2024 report, co-authored by Schumacher, states that northwest Colorado summer precipitation has dropped 20% since the 1951 to 2000 period. Meanwhile, spring precipitation in the southwest area of the state has declined 22% since the same time frame.

The study’s authors also found that the snow water equivalent during the 21st century has been 3% to 23% lower across the state’s major river basins than the 1951 to 2000 average. They project that future warming temperatures will further shrink spring snowpack, forecasting reductions of snow water equivalent by -5% to -30% for 2050 compared to 1971 to 2000. Additionally, the researchers concluded yearly streamflow in Colorado’s major river basins has been 3% to 19% lower since 2000 when compared to the 1951 to 2000 average.

“The mountain snowpack is hugely important in Colorado,” Schumacher said. “The snow that builds up in the winter is the water that serves people in all directions…”

Although 2023 was the warmest year globally, the western region of the U.S. was an exception. Colorado experienced heavy snowfall the last two winters, which helped keep the temperatures down, per Schumacher. Last year ranked only as the 29th warmest year statewide for Colorado with 2012 securing the top spot of warmest year on record, the climatologist noted. He added seven of the nine warmest years in Colorado have occurred since 2012.

“We have some of the most interesting and highly variable weather of anywhere in the country here in Colorado, and that’s a natural part of our climate, but as the climate warms, we are probably going to see even more variations,” Schumacher said. “The threats that we already have there, especially on the dry side of the equation — droughts, wildfire, things like that — are likely to be amplified or become more frequent or more intense.”