Pacific winds

Why on earth would a warm patch of water in the Pacific Ocean influence whether there is fresh powder at Vail?    

That’s the question that Klaus Wolter of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES, has been working on for decades to answer. Equally as important is that Wolter simultaneously contributes his knowledge and forecasts to Colorado’s Water Availability Task Force to help it mitigate drought effects throughout the state.

This year, those efforts have earned him the Governor’s Award for High-Impact Research in the Sustainability category. Specifically, Wolter studies the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, a naturally occurring phenomenon that involves fluctuating ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific.

His colleague Kristen Averyt, director of the Western Water Assessment and associate director for science for CIRES explains.

“The oceans are what move heat around the planet, and the hydrologic cycle that responds to them drives those changes in heat,” she said. “If you have a warm patch in the ocean, it can shift where precipitation is happening. In particular, there seems to be a relationship between precipitation and snowfall in the Rocky Mountains and how the ENSO moves in the Pacific Ocean.”

In essence, an El Niño season causes wet, snowy winters in Colorado, while the opposite La Niña effect will cause a draught pattern similar to what we have experienced in Colorado the past two years.

“Before the mid-1990s, there were not too many people aware of this pattern,” Wolter said. “The research that had been done had shown very little effect in Colorado and that was simply because people hadn’t realized how complicated Colorado’s climate is. I was very intrigued by that complexity. When I looked at the top 10 snowstorms on the Front Range, I found they all occurred during an El Niño season.”

Another reason Wolter has received so much attention during the past decade is his immense contribution to the conversation around water resource management and drought planning throughout the Southwestern United States. He makes himself available to anyone who has questions about precipitation forecasting, and that affects policy.

“First of all, you have to create the awareness,” he said. “I talk to people and the situation gets on their radar quite a bit earlier than the actual impact. The other thing is that depending on how people manage their reservoirs, they can use this information to hedge their bets. How they actually do it is up to them.”

Averyt, whose organization’s mission is to connect climate science to decision making, says that there’s much more to Wolter’s role.

“This is exactly why Klaus is so valuable,” she said. “He makes himself available to anyone who needs his help, whether it’s the snowplow drivers’ association or the governor’s office. He makes people care about what is happening in remote places and why it makes a difference here.”

Wolter has been very visible in the news since flooding in September caused millions of dollars of damage to Boulder County and the surrounding region.

“Until we had this flooding event, the weather here has been unequivocally interesting and exciting,” he said. “We get big windstorms, snowstorms and even tornados, but they don’t really do that much damage. With this flood, we have entered a new regime here.

“Weatherwise, this has been one heck of a year, so it’s kept my attention for sure. The legacy of this event is still going to be around next year. This is not done.”

Despite all that damage, Wolter says that the flood will boost the scientific community’s knowledge of how an event like this works.

“Before we start trying to understand why this happened, we need to get the best possible map of what happened,” he explained. “This is going to be the best-documented flooding event in Colorado history.”

For the first time this year, Wolter is adding a prediction of snowpack to his winter precipitation forecast, as well as looking at how the distribution of sea ice in the oceans creates anomalies that effect our winter here in Colorado.

“You can ask me in a year how that worked out,” Wolter laughed. “You can probably tell for yourself when you go skiing.”

Averyt said that Wolter’s outgoing nature and relationship-building skills are changing the nature of how science is viewed in the community.

“It’s more than just putting your research into a paper and publishing it and hoping the media picks it up,” she said. “It’s about helping people understand why the science is important not just for them but for society.

“We’re seeing a groundswell in science where younger scientists are trying to make their research matter, and taking it a step further to make sure that it matters at the individual level. Klaus is a role model for what a lot of younger scientists want to be doing in the future.”