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Record CO Snowfall Raises Spring Flood Concerns

June 2, 2011

DENVER - The calendar may say June, but the snow in Colorado's mountains looks more like midwinter. Resorts remain open for late-season skiing, and Rocky Mountain National Park reports twice the snowpack in a normal year.

That could be too much of a good thing, according to Tom Browning, Colorado's chief of watershed and flood protection, who says he's worried about spring runoff as temperatures begin to rise this weekend.

"The big question right now is whether or not that high water will lead to catastrophic flooding or if it will be more of a nuisance-type flooding situation. But I think high water is inevitable."

Storms last week left 17-foot snowdrifts in the mountains. Browning expects Colorado's streams to reach peak levels this weekend, and suggests that people check with their local emergency manager or flood-plain administrator for current conditions.

Some climatologists see the hand of climate change directly in these extreme weather events. Kevin Trenberth, distinguisned senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says the environment in which all these storms are occurring is simply different than it was some 30 years ago.

"We look at the statistics, we find that the very heavy rains are increasing at a substantial rate. In general, it has become wetter in the U.S., especially east of the Rockies."

The time is past when all these storms could be attributed simply to natural cycles, Trenberth says.

"You can't simply blame this all on natural variability. Natural variability is certainly playing a role, but equally, climate change that us humans have something to do with is also playing a role."

The increase in Earth's temperature has led to an even bigger increase in the amount of water vapor over the oceans, Trenberth says, contributing to massive storms.

Kathleen Ryan, Public News Service - CO