In the dry of the storm

State's climate forecast looking a lot like the 1950s

DENVER - Put on your hoop skirts and tune in Elvis on the transistor radio, because it's starting to look a lot like the 1950s.

Unfortunately, this won't be the nostalgic 1950s of big cars and pop music.

The 1950s that could be on the way to Colorado is the decade of drought.

So says Brian Bledsoe, a Colorado Springs meteorologist who studies the history of ocean currents and uses what he learns to make long-term weather forecasts.

"I think we're reliving the '50s, bottom line," Bledsoe said Friday morning at the annual meeting of the Colorado Water Congress.

Bledsoe studies the famous El Niņo and La Niņa ocean currents. But he also looks at other, less well known cycles, including long-term temperature cycles in the oceans.

In the 1950s, water in the Pacific Ocean was colder than normal, but it was warmer than usual in the Atlantic. That combination caused a drought in Colorado that was just as bad as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

The ocean currents slipped back into their 1950s pattern in the last five years, Bledsoe said. The cycles can last a decade or more, meaning bad news for farmers, ranchers, skiers and forest residents.

"Drought feeds on drought. The longer it goes, the harder it is to break," Bledsoe said.

The outlook is worse for the Front Range of Colorado, where Bledsoe grew up and his parents still own a ranch. They recently had to sell half their herd when their pasture couldn't provide enough feed.

"They've spent the last 15 years grooming that herd for organic beef stock,"he said.

Bledsoe looks for monsoon rains to return to the Four Corners and Western Slope in July. But there's still a danger in the mountains in the summer.

"Initially, dry lightning could be a concern, so obviously the fire season is looking not so great right now," he said.

Weather data showed the last year's conditions were extreme.

Nolan Doesken, Colorado's state climatologist, said the summer of 2012 was the hottest on record in Colorado. And it was the fifth-driest winter since record-keeping began more than 100 years ago.

Despite storms in the San Juan Mountains, this winter hasn't been much better.

"We've had a wimpy winter so far," Doesken said. "The past week has been a good week for Colorado precipitation."

However, the next week's forecast shows dryness returning to much of the state.

Reservoir levels are higher than they were in 2002 - the driest year since Coloradans started keeping track of moisture - but the state is entering 2013 with reservoirs that were depleted last year.

"You don't want to start a year at this level if you're about to head into another drought," Doesken said.

It was hard to find good news in Friday morning's presentations, but Bledsoe is happy that technology helps forecasters understand the weather better than they did during past droughts. That allows people to plan for what's on the way.

"I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy," he said.