Climatology of Extreme Daily Precipitation in Colorado and Its Diverse Spatial and Seasonal Variability

Kelly Mahoney * Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Boulder, Colorado

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F. Martin Ralph Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California

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Klaus Wolter * Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Boulder, Colorado

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Nolan Doesken Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado

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Michael Dettinger U.S. Geological Survey, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California

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Daniel Gottas Physical Sciences Division, NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory, Boulder, Colorado

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Timothy Coleman * Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Boulder, Colorado

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Allen White Physical Sciences Division, NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory, Boulder, Colorado

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Abstract

The climatology of Colorado’s historical extreme precipitation events shows a remarkable degree of seasonal and regional variability. Analysis of the largest historical daily precipitation totals at COOP stations across Colorado by season indicates that the largest recorded daily precipitation totals have ranged from less than 60 mm day−1 in some areas to more than 250 mm day−1 in others. East of the Continental Divide, winter events are rarely among the top 10 events at a given site, but spring events dominate in and near the foothills; summer events are most common across the lower-elevation eastern plains, while fall events are most typical for the lower elevations west of the Divide. The seasonal signal in Colorado’s central mountains is complex; high-elevation intense precipitation events have occurred in all months of the year, including summer, when precipitation is more likely to be liquid (as opposed to snow), which poses more of an instantaneous flood risk. Notably, the historic Colorado Front Range daily rainfall totals that contributed to the damaging floods in September 2013 occurred outside of that region’s typical season for most extreme precipitation (spring–summer). That event and many others highlight the fact that extreme precipitation in Colorado has occurred historically during all seasons and at all elevations, emphasizing a year-round statewide risk.

Corresponding author address: Kelly Mahoney, CIRES, 325 Broadway, R/PSD1, Boulder, CO 80305. E-mail: kelly.mahoney@noaa.gov

Abstract

The climatology of Colorado’s historical extreme precipitation events shows a remarkable degree of seasonal and regional variability. Analysis of the largest historical daily precipitation totals at COOP stations across Colorado by season indicates that the largest recorded daily precipitation totals have ranged from less than 60 mm day−1 in some areas to more than 250 mm day−1 in others. East of the Continental Divide, winter events are rarely among the top 10 events at a given site, but spring events dominate in and near the foothills; summer events are most common across the lower-elevation eastern plains, while fall events are most typical for the lower elevations west of the Divide. The seasonal signal in Colorado’s central mountains is complex; high-elevation intense precipitation events have occurred in all months of the year, including summer, when precipitation is more likely to be liquid (as opposed to snow), which poses more of an instantaneous flood risk. Notably, the historic Colorado Front Range daily rainfall totals that contributed to the damaging floods in September 2013 occurred outside of that region’s typical season for most extreme precipitation (spring–summer). That event and many others highlight the fact that extreme precipitation in Colorado has occurred historically during all seasons and at all elevations, emphasizing a year-round statewide risk.

Corresponding author address: Kelly Mahoney, CIRES, 325 Broadway, R/PSD1, Boulder, CO 80305. E-mail: kelly.mahoney@noaa.gov
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