July 30, 2008

City Bakes As Heat Streak Nears Record

By Bill Scanlon

Wheat is withering, hungry cattle are being sold to Kansas, and lawns and fields are browning as Colorado endures record heat and dry conditions that may be the continuation of a 10-year pattern.

Denver is on pace to have its driest year in history, as a third consecutive La Nina weather cycle weakens storms headed for Colorado.

And the end isn't in sight.

After Tuesday's high of 93 degrees, and the rest of the forecast not changing much, it looks as if metro Denver will set a record Thursday for the 19th consecutive day in which the temperature reaches at least 90.

If those 90s in the forecast come to fruition, Denver will reach at least 23 days in a row of 90-plus- degree highs, obliterating the record of 18 days set in 1874 and tied in 1901.

Another record might be broken, too: Denver has had its driest January through June in the 135 years that records have been kept, and July hasn't changed anything.

So far, Denver has had just 3.28 inches of precipitation in 2008. During a normal year, a bit more than 10 inches of precipitation has been recorded by late July, on the way to an average precipitation year of 15.8 inches.

The driest year in Denver's history was the drought year of 2002 when just 7.48 inches of precipitation was recorded.

Meteorologists say Colorado hasn't really recovered from the drought that began in 1999 and reached its peak in 2002, despite a few near-normal years and last winter's good snowpack.

"People need to be cognizant that a drought of this type can last much longer than a decade," much longer, in fact, than the iconic Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s, Marty Hoerling, meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, said Tuesday.

If the drought that started in Colorado in 1999 shows no sign of abating, neither does the shorter-term pattern that has had humans, as well as dogs, panting for relief the past 45 days.

A big high pressure area is stuck above the Front Range, blocking northerly storms from breaking through and southwest monsoons from bringing thunderstorms, Klaus Weickmann, of NOAA, said Wednesday.

Not only are the westerly flows too weak to move it out, but the southerly flows can't budge it.

Instead, the system generates downslope winds from the mountains, "which aren't good for precipitation," Weickmann said.

"When is the thing going to break down? It doesn't look good for the next week or two weeks."

La Nina refers to a weather cycle that starts in the eastern Pacific Ocean and is characterized by colder-than-normal water along the equator - the opposite of an El Nino.

The cold equatorial waters associated with La Ninas tend to push the westerly storms farther north, so Colorado doesn't get very many, Hoerling said.

The storms that do come our way during La Nina years tend to dump snow in the mountains, but have nothing left by the time they cross the Continental Divide.

"We've had more than our share of La Ninas" the past several years that have exacerbated the dryness on Colorado's eastern prairies, Hoerling said. "We've had three years of consecutive La Ninas. Our last big El Nino was in 1998."

While most of the areas of the globe have seen warming the past couple decades, scientists aren't sure why the western U.S. is warming faster than the eastern U.S., Hoerling said.

And they don't know why the 2-degree Fahrenheit average temperature climb the past three decades shows up more in the spring and summer than in the winter and fall.

Colorado needs an El Nino, Weickmann and Hoerling said.

"The thing I'm worried about is that we could stay in La Nina, and this pattern could last for a while," Weickmann said.


Dry times

Colorado counties seeking federal drought disaster designation:

Adams Arapahoe

Baca Bent

Crowley Cheyenne

Douglas El Paso

Elbert Huerfano

Kiowa Kit Carson

Las Animas Logan

Otero Park

Prowers Pueblo

Teller Washington

Counties seeking disaster designation because of late-spring freezes that damaged crops and forage:

Delta Fremont



Keeping your cool

Here are some unusual tips that you might find useful against the heat:

* Drinking hot tea in hot weather is an age-old trick in the Middle East. While it may burn going down, tea enthusiasts insist the hot temperature has a cooling effect on your body.

* Kick off your shoes and rest awhile. The soles of your feet release a good portion of your body heat.

* Fill up the cooler and take a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park for the weekend. Drive up Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved, continuous road in the nation, and you might even find snow.

* Try the "cooling breath" technique of inhaling with your tongue rolled. It's called shitali pranayama.

* Try flavoring your water with cucumbers or steep water in rose petals, another common practice in the Middle East.

Originally published by Bill Scanlon, Rocky Mountain News.

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