What was the biggest March snowstorm in Colorado’s history?
Only 20 years ago, Colorado experienced its biggest March snowstorm to date. The epic three-day storm dumped almost 32 inches of snow in Denver and over 40 inches in Aurora. Skiers found themselves stranded, and avalanche activity was at an all-time high. Government buildings, schools, businesses, and even an airport shut down for days. Students got a two-week-long snow day, and homeowners had to dig their way out of waist-high snow. Follow along as we uncover all of the details of this mind-blowing storm.
Colorado’s Biggest March Snow Storm
The biggest March snowstorm in Colorado history happened in 2003. The blast of winter weather began on St Patrick’s Day, March 17th, and stretched through March 19th. The unusual event was dubbed the blizzard of 03′.
Many residents in Northeast Colorado remember what it was like getting hit by the 2003 blizzard. The roads were the worst they’d ever seen. Stretches of I-25 and I-70 shut down, leaving multiple vehicles stranded. The Colorado transportation department was urging drivers to stay home. It was just too icy and snowy to move around safely.
Other Colorado Blizzards
The three-day March snowstorm is Colorado’s second-biggest snowstorm to date. It’s also the biggest snowstorm since the blizzard of 1913, a 5-day-long December storm.
The second biggest March snowstorm in Colorado was in 2021. During the 2021 snowstorm, heavy snowfall fell from March 13th through the 14th, accumulating 27.1 inches of snow. A relatively small amount compared to the 2003 snowfall totaling 82 inches.
How Much Snow Was There?
A chilling 82 inches of snow hit Colorado during the 2003 blizzard. Certain hard-hit areas experienced three to seven feet of snow. These locations included the northern mountains east of the Continental Divide, the Palmer Divide, and the Front Range Foothills. Moving over to Evergreen, there was over 6 feet of snow. While Cabin Creek experienced 83 inches and Georgetown had a whopping 70. And just 3 miles north of Blackhawk, 60 inches of snowfall hit the ground.
Aurora didn’t get 7 feet of snow, but it was still heavily blanketed. The popular location experienced 40 inches of snowfall, causing two snow shoveling-related fatalities. And people found themselves digging out of 30 to 40 inches of snow in the Denver area.
The Devastating Impact of the Storm
The 2003 March blizzard was responsible for 135,000 Colorado residents losing power. There was also increased avalanche activity, causing road closures and leaving skiers stranded across the state. Things got so bad they even had to force an evacuation of mountain town residents between Silver Plume and Bakerville.
The storm also caused the Denver International Airport to close. The airport’s first official closure. Runways were closed at the Denver international airport for over 24 hours. Imagine what it would have been like being stuck in the airport and having no idea when you get to go home.
Things got even scarier when part of the airport’s roof collapsed. The canvas, tent-like roof gave way to the weight of the snow. A 40-foot gash was ripped through the ceiling. There were 4,000 unhappy travelers stranded at the partially collapsed airport.
The storm also caused one of the longest snow days the state’s ever seen. Because of the storm’s timing, spring break was extended from one week to two weeks. Which is either good or bad, depending on whether you were a student or a homebound parent.
Average March Temperatures in Colorado
March is Denver’s snowiest month. It accounts for 20% of the city’s annual snowfall. However, it’s uncommon for the snowfall to reach the amounts it did during the 2003 blizzard. On average, Denver, Colorado, receives about 11.3 inches of snowfall during March. But during the 2003 blizzard, there were over 30 inches of snow in the Denver area.
March is also Denver’s 5th coldest month of the year, following behind December. Average high temperatures for March in Colorado range between 53° F to 60° F. And the average low temperature ranges between 29° F to 35° F, rarely dipping below 17° F. However, when the blizzard of 03′ hit, the state began experiencing extremes of -12° F.
Impact of Late Season Snowstorms on Colorado’s Wildlife
How did the biggest March snowstorm impact Colorado’s wildlife? Colorado is home to all sorts of animals. There are bison, wild horses, black bears, mountain lions, foxes, rattlesnakes, and more. There’s also a lot of bird diversity with the common grackle, yellow-breasted chat, purple martins, mountain bluebirds, golden eagles, and so many more.
The animals in Colorado are experts at surviving the winter. During the cold months, the wildlife moves to lower elevations. But because of the intensity of the storm, a lot of the animals had a hard time making it through.
Frigid temperatures and excess snowfall made areas that were usually a suitable winter habitat unlivable. A lot of the animals weren’t able to move through the heavy snow to find food. As a result, many animals succumbed to starvation or death by exposure.
Thankfully, some animals are experts at surviving cold weather, even when freak weather events hit. Take, for instance, Colorado’s bison.
Bison are fascinating creatures, with eight times as many hair follicles as cattle. This allows them to grow an extra thick fur coat, that has special snow-proof features. The heat of their skin doesn’t melt the snow, so they don’t get wet and cold. Plus, their hair is the thickest where it counts the most like the head, chest, and forelegs.
Another advantage the bison have is their strong sense of smell. They can find vegetation even when it’s deep in the snow. When the heavy snowfall hit Colorado, the bison could still smell 3 feet into the powder to find a meal. Once they sniff out the food, they use their massive head to plow through the snow. But they only need a little food in the winter.
Bison slow their metabolism during the snowy season, which makes it easy for them to survive when food’s scarce. They also slow their activity and avoid running around or exerting much effort. When the blizzard of 03′ hit Colorado, the bison were able to lazily wait it out.
Final Thoughts on the Biggest March Snowstorm in Colorado
Now you know all about the biggest March snowstorm in Colorado history. The epic storm happened in March 2003. Three straight days of snowfall began on March 17th and stretched all the way through March 19th. The crazy weather event dubbed the March 2003 blizzard was responsible for 82 inches of snowfall throughout the state. There was also $93 million in damages.
Roofs collapsed, roads shut down, and they had to close the airport for the first time ever. Driving was impossible during the storm and incredibly dangerous. And the excess snowfall increased avalanche activity, forcing an evacuation for some mountain town residents. On a brighter note, students got to enjoy a two-week-long spring break.
As for the wildlife in Colorado, many species weren’t ready for the late-season storm. Starvation and exposure claimed many animals’ lives. However, certain species like the mighty bison, found it easy to ride the storm.
Even though March is one of Denver’s snowiest months, this 2003 blizzard brought snowfall records that the state had never seen before. While Denver, Colorado, usually receives around 11 inches of snow during March, this infamous storm dumped 31.8 inches across the city.
The massive snowstorm was 20 years ago, and the state has yet to see another storm quite like it in March. Another big blizzard struck Northeast Colorado on March 13th and 14th, 2021. But the March blizzard of 2021 only had 30.8 in of snowfall. Which is nothing compared to the snowfall from the March blizzard of 2003.
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