By Mark Cox
New to Denver and bracing for your first winter at 5,280 feet? Richard Wagner, Ph.D., a professor of meteorology at Metropolitan State University of Denver, offers a primer on what to expect.
Denver residents generally first see snowfall in mid-October – earlier than any other major American city – and are usually still clearing the white stuff from their front paths in late April. But a gradually warming climate means the snow doesn’t arrive quite as early as it once did, Wagner says.
“Denver's official records show that for five years during the ‘90s, we had measurable snowfall in September,” he says. “But there has now been no September snow since 2000.”
Denver gets 57 inches of snow a year, which sounds relatively modest – especially when compared with the 300-plus inches that fall on the nearby Rocky Mountains. But when a snowstorm does hit town, it drops the kind of huge, thick blankets of snow that could easily bury a small dog. And if anything, those storms are growing bigger.
“Over the past 20 years, we have seen more of these huge dumps of snowfall hitting Denver – sometimes more than a foot and a half in a single storm,” says Wagner. “The biggest snows generally arrive early in the season during October, or much later in March or April. But even the smaller January storms are now getting deeper.”
Still, as every Denverite knows, snow does not stay long in this city. The Colorado sun is so powerful that even a heavy snowfall usually melts away in a day or two.
Which month sees the most snowfall in Denver? You might guess December, or maybe January. You probably won’t be thinking of March – nearly half of which, after all, is technically spring. And yet statistically, with an average fall of 11.4 inches, March is Denver’s snowiest month. “Climatologically, the snowiest week of the year is the last week of March,” Wagner explains. “And something else that might surprise people – the second snowiest time of the year is the first week of April.”
However, March snowfall is wildly unpredictable, which means Denverites never quite know what to expect. Some years there is almost too little snow to measure, then in other years one or two big storms will bring a deluge. The record year was 1944, which saw 32.5 inches – almost three feet of snow – come falling down on the puzzled population.
If you’re planning to pack a polar face mask and Mount Everest-ready mittens for a winter trip to Denver, you might want to re-think your wardrobe. While it can get decidedly chilly sometimes, overall temperatures during the winter months are actually pretty moderate. “Even the coldest month, December, has an average daily high temperature of 45 degrees, and days reaching 60 degrees are fairly common,” Wagner says.
For a realistic snapshot of what Colorado winter weather looks like, just watch a Denver Broncos home game on TV and check out the crowd. Even in January, you’ll often see the fans wearing just short sleeves or a light jacket. And that’s because a nice winter’s day in Denver feels like a cool spring day in many other places.
It’s Denver’s unofficial slogan and features in virtually all the city’s tourist and promotional materials. Only thing is, it’s not really true. Denver’s claim to “300 days of sunshine” was first made in the 1870s by a railroad company publicist – and the city has pretty much run with the line ever since. But the only way to actually reach that total is by counting a single hour’s sunshine in 24 hours as a “sunny day,” which obviously is cheating.
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However, Denver does enjoy a beautiful climate throughout most of the year that is the envy of many other U.S. cities. And if you are thinking of visiting in winter, Wagner has a very important piece of advice: “Invest in good sunglasses. All those powerful UV rays from our sunny skies bouncing off the white snow is not good for your retinas.”
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