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The Great Colorado Flood of September 2013

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  • 1 National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado
  • | 2 Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado
  • | 3 University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, Colorado
  • | 4 Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado
  • | 5 National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado
  • | 6 NOAA/Center for Satellite Applications and Research, College Park, Maryland
  • | 7 National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado
  • | 8 Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado
  • | 9 University of Colorado Boulder, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Earth Systems Research Laboratory, Boulder
  • | 10 National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado
  • | 11 University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, Colorado
  • | 12 Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado
  • | 13 National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado
  • | 14 Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado
  • | 15 Centre de Recerca Aplicada en Hidrometeorologia, Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain
  • | 16 National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado
  • | 17 Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado
  • | 18 National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado
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Abstract

During the second week of September 2013, a seasonally uncharacteristic weather pattern stalled over the Rocky Mountain Front Range region of northern Colorado bringing with it copious amounts of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, and the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean. This feed of moisture was funneled toward the east-facing mountain slopes through a series of mesoscale circulation features, resulting in several days of unusually widespread heavy rainfall over steep mountainous terrain. Catastrophic flooding ensued within several Front Range river systems that washed away highways, destroyed towns, isolated communities, necessitated days of airborne evacuations, and resulted in eight fatalities. The impacts from heavy rainfall and flooding were felt over a broad region of northern Colorado leading to 18 counties being designated as federal disaster areas and resulting in damages exceeding $2 billion (U.S. dollars). This study explores the meteorological and hydrological ingredients that led to this extreme event. After providing a basic timeline of events, synoptic and mesoscale circulation features of the event are discussed. Particular focus is placed on documenting how circulation features, embedded within the larger synoptic flow, served to funnel moist inflow into the mountain front driving several days of sustained orographic precipitation. Operational and research networks of polarimetric radar and surface instrumentation were used to evaluate the cloud structures and dominant hydrometeor characteristics. The performance of several quantitative precipitation estimates, quantitative precipitation forecasts, and hydrological forecast products are also analyzed with the intention of identifying what monitoring and prediction tools worked and where further improvements are needed.

CORRESPONDING AUTHOR: David J. Gochis, NCAR/UCAR, 3090 Center Green Drive, Boulder, CO 80301, E-mail: gochis@ucar.edu

Abstract

During the second week of September 2013, a seasonally uncharacteristic weather pattern stalled over the Rocky Mountain Front Range region of northern Colorado bringing with it copious amounts of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, and the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean. This feed of moisture was funneled toward the east-facing mountain slopes through a series of mesoscale circulation features, resulting in several days of unusually widespread heavy rainfall over steep mountainous terrain. Catastrophic flooding ensued within several Front Range river systems that washed away highways, destroyed towns, isolated communities, necessitated days of airborne evacuations, and resulted in eight fatalities. The impacts from heavy rainfall and flooding were felt over a broad region of northern Colorado leading to 18 counties being designated as federal disaster areas and resulting in damages exceeding $2 billion (U.S. dollars). This study explores the meteorological and hydrological ingredients that led to this extreme event. After providing a basic timeline of events, synoptic and mesoscale circulation features of the event are discussed. Particular focus is placed on documenting how circulation features, embedded within the larger synoptic flow, served to funnel moist inflow into the mountain front driving several days of sustained orographic precipitation. Operational and research networks of polarimetric radar and surface instrumentation were used to evaluate the cloud structures and dominant hydrometeor characteristics. The performance of several quantitative precipitation estimates, quantitative precipitation forecasts, and hydrological forecast products are also analyzed with the intention of identifying what monitoring and prediction tools worked and where further improvements are needed.

CORRESPONDING AUTHOR: David J. Gochis, NCAR/UCAR, 3090 Center Green Drive, Boulder, CO 80301, E-mail: gochis@ucar.edu
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