Even in snowy Colorado, October blizzards are unusual. But the one that hit in 1997 even managed to take meteorologists by surprise.
This month marks the 26th anniversary of the epic 1997 Colorado fall blizzard that stranded thousands, injured untold numbers in the state, and directly resulted in at least seven deaths.
From Summer Weather to Whiteout Conditions
Recently recalling the blockbuster storm to the local press, Colorado Springs forecaster Mike Daniels said, “I remember looking at the model thinking, ‘This is going to be a monster,’ but it even exceeded what I thought it would do.”
“Blizzard warnings were out,” he added, “but to see a storm of that magnitude was just mind-boggling.”
And that’s especially true since the weather was summer-like just the week before the storm. In the Denver area, temperatures were in the 70s and 80s. But those readings soon took a nosedive as the storm approached.
By the evening of Friday, October 24, the state was in the throes of a full-scale blizzard.
Although heavy snow was predicted, people were still caught off guard. Denver residents recall going out to dinner or a show and within a few hours being unable to get home. At Denver International Airport over 4,000 people took shelter. Cars were abandoned where they skidded off the roadway, with many motorists being rescued by the National Guard.
And for some, the blizzard proved deadly.
In El Paso County, three died from carbon monoxide poisoning while waiting for rescue in their cars. Two others froze to death, and several more were killed in car accidents.
Numerous injuries also resulted from falls, collapsing roofs, and other structures.
Livestock perished as well, with an estimated 20,000 head of cattle dying as a result of the storm. Hay drops by the Army and National Guard kept thousands more alive.
As measured by the National Weather Service, total snowfall amounts ranged from 20 inches at the Colorado Springs Airport, to 48 inches in Black Forest to a whopping 52 inches in Palmer Lake.
Denver reports ranged from 14 to 31 inches of snow. Then there were the drifts, in some areas as high as 15 feet.
With a State of Emergency soon declared by the Colorado Governor, roadways were closed to all but emergency vehicles. Army personnel in Humvees and helicopters conducted search and rescue. High winds gusting up to 60 mph during the blizzard brought down power lines around the state.
By early Sunday morning, the snow had finally stopped falling.
Then the digging out began.
‘Denver’s Big Snow’
But Denver had actually seen far worse when it comes to snow totals than what fell there in October 1997.
The blizzard of 1913, known as “Denver’s Big Snow,” still holds the record for the most snowfall in recorded history in the city. Starting on December 1 (with three weeks of fall left) and continuing for five full days, the storm dumped over 45 inches in the city.
As upper-level maps of atmospheric conditions didn’t yet exist, forecasters used “surface maps” to try and predict where the developing storm would go. As you can imagine, most reports weren’t very accurate!
Part of the problem was caused by the fact that it wasn’t all that cold. The temperature was just at freezing — 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) — for most of the storm. That’s reflected in this December 4, 1913 report from the Denver Weather Bureau:
“The snow was very wet and heavy and by noon traffic was considerably impeded. By late evening…street cars, automobiles, and other means of conveyance were abandoned. Streets were almost impassable.”
Despite the big totals in Denver from the 1913 event, other areas in Colorado saw even more. Georgetown, 40 miles west of Denver sitting at an elevation of 8,540 feet (2,603 meters), received a mind-boggling 86 inches!
This headline from the Aspen Democrat-Times on December 5, 1913, gives a short glimpse into what it was like. “ROOFS Collapsing In Denver from Weight of Snow; Trains Stalled On All Lines Near the Capital City; Much Suffering.”
Don’t Trust the Temps!
If the 1997 Colorado blizzard taught us anything, it’s not to let late-season warm weather fool us!
That storm was caused by a “closed area” of low pressure that was over Utah drifting to Colorado’s southern border. It had been stalled over the Texas panhandle, which allowed it to suck in moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting blizzard delivered one to two inches of snow an hour.
Certainly, weather forecasts have improved since 1913, and even since 1997! While the most accurate forecast won’t stop the snow, it will give you time to prepare the best you can for whatever Mother Nature may deliver.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Tainar/Shutterstock.com
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