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New resource highlights impacts, footprint of snow drought in the western U.S.

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

With a relatively dry 2017-18 winter season, concerns about “snow drought” across the western United States have continued to increase, and to bring more light to concerns, the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) published a new page on April 5 to further define snow drought and help provide new resources. 

“Snow drought is defined as a period of abnormally low snowpack for the time of year, reflecting either below-normal cold-season precipitation or a lack of snow accumulation, despite near-normal precipitation,” NIDIS defined. “The impacts of snow drought are often widespread, affecting ecosystems, reservoir levels and operations, water resource management, tourism and winter recreation.”

Snow drought is often caused by warm temperatures and precipitation falling as rain rather than snow or unusually early snowmelt, according to the AMS Glossary of Meteorology. 

February’s above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation increased demand for snowpack monitoring and snow-water equivalent data, but NIDIS adds, “It became clear that traditional hydrological drought data alone was not providing enough information to decision makers and resource managers.”

New page

A new website was created and launched on April 3 to address this problem.

“This new page features a number of snow drought monitoring tools that can help decision makers and resource managers monitor, plan for and cope with snow drought and its impacts,” according to NIDIS. 

The page further compiles resources from USDA, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, SNOTEL and other, to provide data on SWE, snow course, snow probability, freezing level and streamflow forecasts, as well as resources and tools specific to regions. 

“One of the resources featured on the new page is Climate Engine,” continues NIDIS. “This dataset contains snowpack variables in near real-time.”

In addition to offering useful resources, the page also invites public participation in the process of collecting data related to snow drought. 

“Visitors to the snow drought page are also invited to report impacts of snow drought from the 2018 water year to the Drought Impact Reporter, which will be shared with states and regional Drought Early Warning Systems affected in an effort to increase awareness and understanding of how snow drought impacts citizens and economies,” says NIDIS.

“While April 1 is a critical junction for snow, snow drought can have impacts throughout the winter on water resources, recreation and ecosystems,” NIDIS continues. “In partnership with the National Drought Mitigation Center, NIDIS and state partners are piloting an effort to collect impacts of the snow drought across the West from winter 2017-18.”

They added, “Information collected will be shared with the states affected to help us better understand the impacts of snow drought to the citizens and the economy of the region.”

Current situation

As of April 12, the Northern Rockies were in good shape as far as snowpack is considered, with well above average snowpack, but NIDIS warned, “Snowpack is generally below average in the southern Cascades, Sierra Nevada and the Colorado River Basin.”

Largely, Wyoming’s mountain ranges in the northern tier of the state are experiencing snowpack ranging from 100 to greater than 160 percent of median, while the southern mountain ranges see snowpack as low as 40 percent over average. 

However, winter storms are predicted for the next several weeks, with the southern half of Wyoming expecting significant winter storm impact during the weekend of April 20. 

Preparing for winter weather

When winter storms hit, the National Weather Service (NWS) encourages people to stay indoors as much as possible, but if it is necessary to go outdoors, people should wear proper clothing and avoid overexertion, such as shoveling heavy snow, pushing a car or walking in deep snow.

“The strain from the cold and hard labor may cause a heart attack,” NWS said. “Sweating could lead to a chill and hypothermia.”

Animals should be moved to sheltered areas, NWS says, citing that shelter belts often provide better protection for cattle than confining shelters and sheds. 

“Haul extra feed to livestock feeding areas before the winter storm starts,” NWS encourages. “Most animal die from dehydration in winter storm, so it’s important to make sure water is available.”

“Look for early signs of disease and injury in livestock, as well,” NWS says. “Severe cold injuries and death primarily occur in very young or already debilitated animals. Animals suffering from frostbite often don’t exhibit pain, and it may be a week or two before the injury becomes evident.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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