By Jennifer Gray and Monica Garrett, CNN meteorologists
Multiple avalanche warnings are in place across western Colorado through the next couple of days due to favorable avalanche conditions. Meanwhile, a train of winter storms continues across the West, prompting winter weather advisories.
Heavy snowfall combined with strong winds is overloading the weak snow near the bottom of the snowpack across much of the Colorado Rockies.
“Significant new snow, in some places over 36 inches, has fallen on a weeks-old snow layer. The top layer of the older snow is hard and slick,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers explains. “The new snow can’t attach to it and will slide off creating the avalanche danger.”
Conditions will allow for avalanches to occur naturally, but can also be easily triggered, even from a distance.
“You can expect to easily trigger a large and dangerous avalanche on steep northerly and easterly-facing slopes at all elevations,” warned the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
There is typically a sharp increase in avalanche deaths during the months of January and February, but avalanches can form anytime if the right conditions are present.
“Early season snowpack can be highly unstable because of the lack of consistent storms,” said CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam. “Once the storm door is open to more frequent snow events in January and February, snow begins to pile up in layers on top of the unstable, early season snowfall.”
Though we are still early in the snow season, several winter storms with heavy snowfall have impacted the Colorado Rockies in recent weeks, creating these very dangerous avalanche conditions.
It’s very rare to survive an avalanche, according to Jake Hutchinson, an avalanche rescuer and safety instructor in Utah.
“That’s the hard part about the avalanche rescue world is that we very rarely can get people there in time to make it a live find,” Hutchinson pointed out. “Realistically, people have a really pretty good chance of survival if they can be fully dug out in the first 15 to 30 minutes of burial.”
Winter storm could bring a foot of snow
Winter weather alerts are in effect for eight western states as rounds of moisture continue to hit the Western US over the coming days, bringing valley rain and higher elevation snowfall.
Higher elevations in the Rockies could pick up a foot of snow from this storm system.
Along with heavy show and treacherous travel on the mountain passes, winds will be gusting as well. Wind gusts in western Colorado could be up to 40 mph at times. A blizzard warning is in place for a portion of Montana for gusts as high as 60 mph blowing snow and creating whiteout conditions.
Snow will also spread across portions of the north-central Plains where a few inches of accumulation are forecast by Friday morning.
By Thursday, the next storm arriving along the West Coast will bring the next round of unsettled weather into the Pacific Northwest, and to northern and central California by early Friday.
Snowfall totals in the Sierra and Cascades will range anywhere from six inches to a foot.
The consistent rounds of winter storms have made for a great start for the western snowpack, leaving experts cautiously optimistic for a good snow season.
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CNN meteorologist Rob Shackelford contributed to this article.