Looking back through history, Denver and Colorado have had some extraordinary weather stories. When looking to pick a “best” or most significant weather event, reaching far back into the history books one might choose the Georgetown blizzard of 1913 which dumped an astonishing 86 inches of snow or perhaps the Big Thompson Flood of 1976 which claimed 145 lives. More recently, there were the holiday storms of 2006 or the Windsor tornadoes from 2007. But, there is one storm that historically stands out not only because of its severity in terms of the weather but also because of the long lasting impact it caused in Denver and Colorado which is still being felt today – the Christmas Eve Blizzard of 1982. For those of you that didn’t live in Colorado then or are too young to remember, a trip through the history books shows why this storm was so significant. Those that do remember it have memories that will last a lifetime.
As Christmas 1982 approached, forecasters were predicting a white Christmas several days beforehand but most were expecting a moderate snowfall of 6 inches. Two days before Christmas Eve though, the picture began to change. On the 22nd a Pacific cold front came ashore in California bringing severe rain, high surf and even hurricane force winds. As it moved east over higher terrain, it dumped 2 feet of snow in the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City.
At about that same time, jet stream winds were forming a trough of low pressure over the southeastern plains of Colorado. The counterclockwise motion of the trough began to pull moist air into the state. Further east Kansas and Oklahoma experienced severe thunderstorms and even tornadoes. The winds set the stage for strong upslope conditions along the Front Range.
Rain changed to snow on the plains and shortly before midnight on the 23rd, a full blown blizzard had developed. Denver woke to snow on the ground the morning of Christmas Eve but the storm was just getting started. Snowfall rates of 2 – 3 inches per hour were the norm during the day and winds screamed at 50mph causing wind chill temperatures to plummet to as low as -35 degrees. As conditions continued to deteriorate throughout the day, the gravity of the situation began to be realized.
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