This weekend’s snowstorm in Denver may not be the biggest ever, but it will dump up to 2 feet of snow
The snowstorm that’ll wallop the Front Range this weekend probably won’t take the crown for the biggest ever in Denver, meteorologists say, but it will make a run for a slick bronze medal or even a silver as it threatens to dump 2 feet or more and snarl car, bus, train and air traffic for several hours.
Denver would need to record more than 31.8 inches of snow to unseat the second-place storm of March 2003, which National Weather Service meteorologist Frank Cooper gives this storm a “50/50 chance” of doing.
“The numbers are going to go higher the longer it sits over us,” Cooper said Thursday. His NWS colleague, Robert Koopmeiners, said downtown Denver is expected to get up to 19.5 inches of snow through early Monday.
Dethroning the record 1913 storm that blanketed Denver in nearly 46 inches over the first five days of December that year “is going to be hard to achieve,” Cooper said. But venture beyond the Denver city limits, especially to the north and west, and Cooper said the totals from this weekend’s storm could be monumental — up to 5 feet.
“The heaviest snowfall is going to be in the foothills of Boulder, Larimer and north Jefferson counties,” he said.
The approaching storm system brought rain and heavy snow across California and Nevada as it tracked eastward, AccuWeather Chief On-Air Meteorologist Bernie Rayno said, and will tap into moisture from the Gulf of Mexico to enhance precipitation in Colorado.
“We will have a chance of eclipsing the seasonal total in one storm,” Rayno said. Denver has received 34.1 inches for the season to date.
Snow is expected to start Friday morning, with the heaviest period of accumulation late Saturday into Sunday before wrapping up late that day.
Trouble on the roads
The Colorado Department of Transportation is urging drivers and travelers to stay off highways this weekend or make it to their destination before the storm hits, CDOT spokeswoman Tamara Rollison said Thursday.
Heavy snow accumulation is expected along Interstates 70 and 25, and other highway corridors in the foothills and along the Front Range. The I-70 mountain corridor to the Eisenhower Memorial Johnson Tunnel will likely get clobbered, so Rollison warned that people planning to ski Saturday morning “may be stuck on I-70 for a long time” due to closures.
The Colorado State Patrol is staffing additional troopers on metro-area highways this weekend as an increased safety measure.
“People tend to underestimate how bad snow conditions can be,” said Master Trooper Gary Cutler, a CSP spokesman.
Gov. Jared Polis and other state leaders also warned Coloradans to avoid unnecessary travel.
“I encourage you to be in a relatively safe location from shortly after sunrise Saturday through Sunday afternoon if it’s snowing in your area,” the governor said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew said the agency is prepared to handle the snow, which she said will come “at a fairly heavy rate, possibly an inch an hour, for a long period of time.”
John Lorme, director of maintenance and operations at CDOT, said his crews have spent days preparing equipment, adding that maintenance teams will work 12-hour shifts around the clock during the storm.
“This storm is a lot different than our routine High Country mountain-pass storm that typical drops 2 or 3 feet,” Lorme said. “So, instead I’m directing our resources from the High Country that I usually have there down here to the Front Range.”
Metro area prepares plows
In Denver, the city’s public works crews will be putting its 70 big plows and 36 smaller, residential plows to work starting Friday afternoon.
“As snow starts to accumulate, they will take a single pass down the center of each side
street,” city spokeswoman Heather Burke said. “Note the small plows do not bring the street to bare pavement but can be helpful in creating a path to the main streets and preventing deep ice ruts.”
A storm in late 2019 that left ruts on city streets for days prompted a rush of complaints from residents who grimaced hearing the undercarriage of their vehicles scraping against ice.
In Aurora, the city will ramp up its response to the storm starting late Saturday night to a Category III level, when it expects there to be 14 inches of snow on the ground. That means 62 plows, 11 loaders and six graders in action, city spokeswoman Julie Patterson said.
Aurora will also apply granular ice slicer and liquid deicer to the roads, depending on pavement temperatures and the rate of snowfall.
“As the storm continues, we will adjust our response as needed,” Patterson said. “We don’t anticipate any road closures at this time but will notify the public if that does happen.”
Snow totals are forecast to trend higher the further north in the state you go, so Boulder spokeswoman Julie Causa said the city will have its 19 plows out, staffed by up to two dozen employees per shift.
“City snow crews expect to work around the clock beginning Thursday night until well into next week if the storm continues as forecast,” Causa said.
Attention will go first to Boulder’s major streets and emergency routes and neighborhood streets with steep slopes. But because of the potentially record-setting nature of this storm, Causa said Boulder will likely tackle residential streets after the bulk of the storm — and “after priority routes have been completed.”
Planes, trains and buses
At Denver International Airport, crews are anticipating wet, heavy snow and strong winds beginning late Friday night. About 500 people are ready and on standby for snow removal.
The airport has more than 200 pieces of snow-removal equipment for runways, taxiways and ramp areas, and another 120 pieces for airport parking lots and roadways.
Flight delays and cancellations are expected this weekend, DIA spokeswoman Emily Williams said, so travelers are urged to check ahead with airlines. Some are offering travel waivers, no fees and flexibility to change flight plans, she said.
“Close contact with your airline is going to help you out a lot, particularly if your flight is Saturday or Sunday,” Williams said.
Anyone going to the airport this weekend should monitor road conditions and take extra time to get there, Williams said. COVID-19 safety precautions, including wearing facial masks and social distancing, remain in effect at DIA.
Two years ago, the “bomb cyclone” snowstorm stranded about 60 vehicles near DIA. Police and the Colorado National Guard rescued 200 people; one man was stranded in his car for 24 hours.
“If you’re going to go out in it — and we suggest that you do not — you need be prepared to survive while you are waiting for help,” Cutler said.
The must-have list includes: a small snow shovel, water, food, blankets and extra clothing (especially waterproof clothing that’s appropriate for snow), a flashlight, a fully charged phone, jumper cables and emergency flares.
Four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive vehicles with good ground clearance and good tires will be necessary to navigate roads this weekend.
“If you do go out, make sure you are prepared and that you go slow,” Cutler said. “If you get stuck, you may be on your own for a while before help can get to you.”
The Regional Transportation District says it’s ready for the storm, be it on the roads where its 1,000-plus buses run or on the nearly 80 miles of train track.
“We are planning for overtime and higher-than-normal levels of personnel over the weekend to stay ahead of the storm as much as possible,” RTD spokeswoman Laurie Huff said. “We will be checking and staging equipment for the next couple of days.”
The agency will deploy extra staff for both dispatch and street supervision, with people in place to respond to accidents or buses stuck in the snow. But RTD cautions that riders should expect delays between 10 minutes and half an hour.
Train delays are also possible due to frozen wire and track switches. For light rail routes and commuter rail corridors, RTD will run “sweep trains” throughout the night to keep the overhead wires clear of ice and snow, as well as monitor heaters to ensure track switches and wires do not freeze up.
Expected snow totals for downtown Denver
National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Koopmeiners said Thursday downtown Denver will accumulate at least 19.5 inches of snow during this weekend’s storm. Here is a projected timeline as of 4 p.m. Thursday:
- Sunrise to 11:59 p.m. Friday: No snow accumulation, rain most likely.
- Midnight to sunrise Saturday: Between 0.25 inches and 0.5 inches on the ground.
- Noon Saturday: 2 inches.
- 5 p.m. Saturday: 5 inches.
- 11:59 p.m. Saturday: 9 inches on the ground.
- 6 a.m. Sunday: 13 inches.
- Noon Sunday: 16 inches.
- 5 p.m. Sunday: 18 inches.
- 11:59 p.m. Sunday: 19 inches on the ground.
- 6 a.m. Monday: 19.5 inches.
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