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Will 'Godzilla El Niño' Terrorize Colorado This Winter?

DENVER (CBS4) - A report released Thursday shows El Niño continues to strengthen in the equatorial waters of the Pacific Ocean. NOAA scientists say there is a greater than 90% chance that it will last into winter.

The news sparked a flurry of reports including one saying this could potentially be a 'Godzilla El Niño' because it threatens to exceed a benchmark set in 1997-98.

During that El Niño California saw record rain and catastrophic flooding and Colorado had a few potent snow storms.

So is this news hype or a legitimate cause for concern?

Of course there is some hype simply because of the age we live in where everyone has a digital voice and news spreads fast via social media. But the hype is also a legitimate cause for concern simply based off history.

(credit: CBS)

Reliable El Niño records in the United States date back to 1950. Since then we've had 13 instances where El Niño was active during the period of May-July. And while on the big picture that is not a lot of data, some of the statistics we have are compelling.

In Colorado, 11 of those 13 El Niño events brought average to above-average winter snowfall to Denver. In fact, five of those seasons rank in Denver's Top 10 snowiest since 1950 and Top 20 snowiest since 1882.

1958-59 - 99.3 inches (#1 since 1950, #2 since 1882)
1972-73 - 94.9 inches (#2 since 1950, #4 since 1882)
1982-83 - 81.6 inches (#6 since 1950, #12 since 1882)
1983-84 - 80.9 inches (#7 since 1950, #14 since 1882)
1991-92 - 79.0 inches (#10 since 1950, #19 since 1882)

Denver's average annual snowfall over the entire climate record (1882-2014) is 57.1 inches. The following is a list of seasonal snowfall during each El Niño event.

1953-54 - 41.5 inches
1957-58 - 57.1 inches
1958-59 - 99.3 inches
1965-66 - 46.9 inches
1969-70 - 65.8 inches
1972-73 - 94.9 inches
1982-83 - 81.6 inches
1983-84 - 80.9 inches
1987-88 - 62.3 inches
1991-92 - 79.0 inches
1992-93 - 60.4 inches
1997-98 - 72.1 inches
2002-03 - 61.8 inches


El Niño often brings the storm track further south than usual and that can place southern Colorado in the line of fire for consistent heavy snow. The San Juan Mountain range and some of the central mountains often do quite well during an El Niño winter.

Denver and the Front Range can also be on the snowy side and often see a significant storm or two as they track into the favored position to provide a soggy upslope event.

Northwest Colorado sometimes can miss out on the big snow during an El Niño winter because the storm track is too far south.

1997 blizzard
The 1997 blizzard in Denver happened during a strong El Nino. (credit: CBS)
1997 blizzard
The 1997 blizzard in Denver was caused by a severe El Nino year (credit: CBS)

So if you're looking for a snow forecast for the upcoming fall and winter, based off history, it could be snowy in Denver, along the Front Range and across southern Colorado.

The big question is will it be a lot of smaller storms that add up, a few big ones, or a combination. And of course there is always the chance that despite indicators pointing toward a snowy winter, it could end up as an anomaly and be below average.

We'll have to wait and see how global weather patterns set up in the weeks ahead and fine tune to winter forecast.

Meteorologist Chris Spears writes about stories related to weather and climate in Colorado. Check out his bio, connect with him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @ChrisCBS4.

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