Rare February Blizzard Rages in Denver

For the millions of Americans who have been wondering where winter is, look no further than Colorado, which has been blasted by 1 to 2 feet of wind-whipped snow during the past 24 hours. The storm responsible for the snow and wind is also causing severe thunderstorms in Texas and Oklahoma, with the threat of tornadoes Friday. Overnight, heavy snow is expected to fall across Nebraska, including Lincoln, Grand Isle and Omaha, with up to a foot of snow expected.

A snowy Denver neighborhood. Credit: dmooneyham/Instagram.

According to the National Weather Service, Gilpin County, Colorado, has already received 34.5 inches of snow, and 26.5 inches have fallen in Ward, Colorado, with 16 inches in Boulder, a foot in Denver, and 18 inches at Sand Creek Reservoir in Wyoming. 

While snow in Colorado isn't unusual, it's rare for Denver and eastern Colorado to get a storm of this magnitude during February. Most of Denver's snow comes during the fall and spring, and this storm may break records for the biggest February snowstorm.

To make the all-time top 10 list of storms in Denver, however, more than 22.1 inches would need to fall, which doesn't appear likely. According to the Associated Press, the city's heaviest snowfall on record was 45.7 inches, recorded in 1913. 

The storm has forced the closure of large parts of Interstate 70 between eastern Colorado and Denver, and road conditions will worsen in Nebraska as the snow moves in. The storm has also hampered air travel at Denver International Airport, and may have played a role in a Learjet accident at Pueblo Airport, which caused no serious injuries. An avalanche warning was issued east of the Continental Divide, with a high risk of avalanches Friday. 

Map showing areas of unusual warm weather (orange/red) and cold (blue/purple) between Jan. 26 and Feb. 1. The circles highlight the cold temperatures in Alaska and Europe. Credit: NOAA/ESRL.

This spring-like storm comes in the midst of a very unusual winter, with much milder than average temperatures and below average snowfall affecting most of the U.S., and extreme cold bottled up in Alaska. Many U.S. cities are on track to set marks for the least snowiest winter on record.

Recently, cold air has spilled into Europe, causing a rare snowfall in Rome, and killing dozens in Ukraine, Poland, and other countries in Eastern Europe as temperatures dipped well below zero Fahrenheit.

Writing for weather.com, Stu Ostro, a senior meteorologist at The Weather Channel, said that a combination of natural and manmade factors may account for this winter weather pattern, as well as the extreme weather trends seen during the past several winters: 

“Weather extremes have existed for as long as there has been weather on Earth. That’s a fundamental reason why as a meteorologist who is routinely observing them I was so skeptical for so long that anything was out of the ordinary.” 

“However, increasingly during the past decade or so, the extremes have been so frequent, and so extraordinary, and sometimes even at the same time and in such close geographical proximity to each other, that I have become convinced that something ain’t right. That while there have always been extremes, their nature is changing.”