Weather History


TAHOE NUGGET #249: OCTOBER STORMS & 1993 DROUGHT BUSTER! As I sit here writing this the snow continues to fall outside my office window in Carnelian Bay. This week’s impressive 3-day snowstorm isn’t a record breaker for the month of October, but frigid temperatures brought enough of the white stuff to Truckee and the Tahoe Basin that schools closed and traffic got snarled over Donner Pass.


As I sit here writing this the snow continues to fall outside my office window in Carnelian Bay. This week’s impressive 3-day snowstorm isn’t a record breaker for the month of October, but frigid temperatures brought enough of the white stuff to Truckee and the Tahoe Basin that schools closed and traffic got snarled over Donner Pass. The Gulf of Alaska storm marked a dramatic change from the Indian summer weather that locals and visitors had been enjoying since Labor Day weekend.

Chain controls were in force for the first time this season on major mountain passes in the Northern Sierra. At one point, there were 17 tractor trailers and a half dozen cars stuck near Donner Pass when the storm first hit on October 22, 2012.

The storm’s origin in the northern latitudes tapped very cold air for this early in the season, but when compared to the minus 6 degrees Fahrenheit recorded at Squaw Valley on October 30, 1971, we got off easy this time. Low freezing levels during this recent cold front drove storm totals near the Sierra Crest to three feet. Alpine Meadows Ski Resort reported the most with a 46-inch storm total. 

This infrared satellite image indicates cloud tops and precipitation surging into the Pacific Northwest from the Gulf of Alaska. The speckled nature of the clouds over the ocean indicate cold air instability that can generate significant snowfall accumulations in the mountains well after the actual frontal passage.

October snowstorms are not necessarily harbingers of a heavy winter. Recall last October when about two feet fell at Squaw Valley early in the month and everyone got their hopes up that another bomber winter like 2011 was on the way? After that early shot, the region went into a tailspin, at one point setting records for record high temperatures and the longest string of consecutive dry days since 1961. (See Tahoe Nugget #217)

In fact, sometimes early snow leads to a dry season like Water Year 2001 when Squaw Valley picked up 44 inches in October. Boreal Mountain Resort fired up their lifts on Oct. 12, the earliest opening day on record for the ski area, but the winter of 2001 ended up as Reno’s driest ever.

Cold Pacific storms often generate strong thunderstorms in the lower elevations of California that can produce tornadoes (generally weak), heavy rain, damaging wind gusts and hail. At least one tornado touchdown was associated with this October storm which caused damage to buildings and infrastructure. This funnel cloud was seen in the Sacramento Valley on October 23. Courtesy

Other notable October snowfalls include 1899 when 56 inches buried Tahoe City and 7.4 feet were measured on Donner Pass. More recently, 50 inches of snow fell at the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory in October 2004, with nearly six feet in the highest elevations. The 2004 total was the greatest amount for the tenth month since the lab was established in 1946.

Squaw Valley’s upper elevations picked up about 3 feet of snow in this recent storm series. Note colorful foliage still on the trees.  

Twenty years ago in 1992, the season’s first snowfall occurred on October 29, with a total of 17.1 inches recorded at the Snow Lab near Donner Pass. That year, the region was in the grip of a six year drought and Tahoe-Truckee residents were praying fervently for snow. Lake Tahoe was on its way down to 6,220.2 feet in elevation, the lowest level in recorded history.

For three years the Truckee River had limped along at one tenth of its normal flow. Pyramid Lake, terminus of the Truckee, had fallen 11 feet since 1987. Nevada was turning to dust, waiting for a Washoe Zephyr to blow it away.

During the severe drought from 1987 to 1992 the Truckee River dried up, which severely impacted fish and animal habitat let alone tourism associated with Tahoe water sports. The wet winter of 1993 would start to change that scenario.

With all the dismal news about the lack of water, most people were hoping for a big winter. On December 1, 1992, the National Weather Service issued its forecast predicting drier than normal weather for the upcoming winter. Ironically, just 48 hours after the prediction was released, the first in a series of powerful cold fronts began assaulting the region.

The barrage of snowstorms buried the Sierra. At South Lake Tahoe, rangers on Echo Summit recorded nearly 17 feet of snow that month. It was the wettest start to a winter in 10 years.

Despite a National Weather Service forecast for drier than average conditions during the winter of 1993 issued on Dec. 1, 1992, by New Years Day 1993 the Storm King had Tahoe-Truckee residents under siege.

By the end of December 1992, residents and tourists were wishing the drought was back. Persistent rain, wind and heavy snow caused havoc with air, rail and road travel for holiday travelers. Hotels in Truckee and Tahoe City were overwhelmed. Blinding snow forced officials at (then) Reno Cannon Airport to shut down 80 percent of its flights, stranding 3,000 passengers. Trains were delayed and most major highways were closed. Avalanches had cut electric power to 15,000 people.

Southern Pacific Railroad was about the only transportation available in the Northern Sierra during the December 1992 barrage of snowstorms. I took this photo near downtown Truckee. Crews are working to keep track switches clear.

At Donner Pass, 8.5 feet of snow fell in a four day pounding. Countless holiday travelers tried to escape the mountains at that point, but Interstate 80 remained closed for three days. The deep snow set off deadly propane tank explosions throughout the Tahoe Basin.

On New Year’s Eve, the NWS issued a forecast for more snow. An invigorated jet stream drove storm after storm into the Tahoe region, and by the third week of January the upper mountain snowpack at Squaw Valley was approaching 20 feet. During the first 10 days of February another 11.5 feet of snow smothered Donner Pass, and for the first time since the epic winter of 1983, Southern Pacific Railroad deployed rotary snowplows to the Summit.

Path to my Carnelian Bay cabin in early February 1993. All hand-shoveled.

Ultimately, nearly 42 feet of snow fell at the Snow Lab that winter, ranking it the 13th snowiest since 1946. That season’s 83 inches of water went a long way toward mitigating the six year dry spell.

When my neighbor in Carnelian Bay lost his satellite TV reception it was time to shovel the roof, circa March 1993.

Despite the NWS winter forecast for drier than normal conditions in 1993, the season ended up being a “Drought Buster” and the ninth wettest on record in the Sierra, right after 2011.

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a mild and drier than normal winter for much of the western United States in 2013. Well, you know how those seasonal forecasts can go.


Fresh snow cloaks Truckee River Canyon outside Tahoe City on October 23, 2012.

Although no one can say with certainty whether NOAA’s forecast will verify, tomorrow Squaw Valley USA opens for a one day skiing-boarding fundraiser and the following day Boreal Mountain Resort opens for the season. Let the winter games begin!


Maple leafs offer colorful contrast to early Tahoe snow.










By Mark McLaughlin

Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author, photographer and professional speaker with 7 books and more than 900 articles in print. Mark has lived at Lake Tahoe for 40+ years and is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip guide. Mark has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel, The Weather Channel, the BBC, and in many historical documentaries.

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