Colder even than a banker’s heart: a 61-below morning in Colorado
by Allen Best
Cold temperatures of early January had me digging deep into my dresser drawers for long johns. I’ve rarely worn them since the late 1990s, when I moved to metropolitan Denver. In my younger days, I sometimes wore a red union suit under my work clothes for weeks at a time. Those were the good, cold days.
One good, cold day stands out. That was Jan. 2, 1979. I was living in Kremmling, which is located along the Colorado River at the bottom of Middle Park. Cold settles in there as if there were a lid, and there really is.
That lid was marked by the smoke that came out of the teepee burner of the local sawmill. It was a blue-collar town then, and it still is. But ranching sets the tone of Kremmling. All the ranchers then raised white-faced Herefords. One of the town’s two bars was called the Hoof ‘n’ Horn. It once had a two-headed calf mounted on the wall. This was before I moved there. I assume it was a Hereford.
Fraser was more famous for cold. It’s about 45 miles farther up the valley. With perverse pride, it called itself the nation’s icebox. In the era of volunteer thermometer-watchers, Fraser often had the nation’s lowest temperature. Alamosa and Gunnison less frequently shivered through the same dubious distinction.
Kremmling got very cold, too, but only unofficially so. In my four years there, I remember a 20 below in November. It was notable only for that month. In December or January, sometimes even February 30 below got your attention more fully. Those were the long-john times.
I undoubtedly wore thick long-johns on Jan. 1, 1979. Unusual cold was expected, and I had to leave at dawn for a new job at Craig, about 90 miles away. Craig was bustling then, with a trio of new coal-fired power plants under construction.
My stove in Kremmling could have used a few more lumps of coal that night. It was cold like nothing I had known. At dawn, Bob Shay’s gas station showed an unofficial 61 below. I don’t remember spitting into the air to see if the moisture would freeze before it hit the ground. Maybe I should have. Or started singing, to see if the words would freeze, filling the air during spring thaw with the sound of weird, tone-deaf renderings of old Motown classics.
Colorado’s weather records from that night remember only a 41 below, and not in Kremmling. However, those same records do recognize a 61 below at Maybell, in the sagebrush country west of Craig, and 60 below at Taylor Park, near Gunnison, both in 1985.
Weather has always been variable, and so it was then. Between those cold daggers in Kremmling and Maybell was a winter of drought and, on New Year’s Day 1981, shirt-sleeves weather. But the overall trend in Colorado’s mountain valleys would seem clear. One station near Grand Lake averaged 22 days each winter of temperatures dipping to 10 below or lower, during the 1960s. Now, according to Becky Bolinger of the Colorado Climate Center, it averages 16 days.
Many of us who shivered through cold winters in Colorado in the ‘60s and ‘70s think local weather comports very well with the global findings. Science Daily recently reported that 2016 was the warmest globally in the last 36 years of satellite measurements.
With an eagle eye on Gunnison thermometers, geologist Bruce Bartleson takes a longer, century-plus view. “The ‘60s and especially the ‘70s were very cold. We have, however, cycled—roughly every 25 years—between colder and warmer spells,” he says. “But now it seems to be waffling. I speculate we were due for a cold spell in the mid-00’s, but, I might speculate, climate change has possibly interfered with our natural cycles.”
This comports with findings of the 2015 Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study. The study, prepared largely by scientists in Fort Collins and Boulder, concluded that statewide annual average temperatures have increased 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 30 years and 2.5 degrees during the past 50 years.
Scientists have been pretty clear that burning of coal, such as I did in Kremmling, but other greenhouse gases are the primary, but not the only, cause of this interference with natural cycles. If you’ve got beach-front property in Florida, it’s worrisome indeed. If you’re in Kremmling or Fraser, a little bit of that global warming is probably welcome.