TAHOE NUGGET #257 30th ANNIVERSARY OF THE BIG ONE (1983)
This winter started off at a blistering pace precipitation-wise, but then after the Christmas holidays the spigot turned off and we just set a new all-time record for the least amount of precipitation for the first two months in the calendar year.
Average precipitation for the months of January and February—normally two of the wettest months of the year with a combined average of more than 17 inches of water—was just 2.2 inches. At Tahoe City, which averages 11 inches for the two months, less than one inch of precipitation fell in the bucket. Reno also set a new dryness record for the two months with little more than a tenth of an inch.
At first the 2013 water year was off to an epic start with double average rain and snow, similar to the top 10 winter of 2011. But neither could keep up with the elevated precipitation trajectory set by the winter of 1983. That monster season is still the overall wettest in Sierra history and the benchmark by which others are measured.
Thirty years ago the West endured one of the most brutal winters in the annals of Sierra weather. Nearly 67 feet of snow fell at Donner Pass in 1983, the sixth greatest all time total for that location since 1878. The incessant storm activity and heavy snowfall took its toll on local residents and businesses, as well as visitors looking to ski some of the deepest powder in decades.
In 1983 potent storms arrived in October and persisted until early May with only short reprieves. Heavy snow buried the mountains, torrential rain lashed the lowlands and 25-foot waves pounded the coast from Fort Bragg to San Diego.
The big winter of ‘83 was not a complete surprise. An unusually strong El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean was adding more juice to the jet stream and climatologists warned of increased potential for a wet winter. A persistent, deep low pressure system in the Gulf of Alaska combined with an intensified high pressure dome in the central Pacific to squeeze the jet stream and effectively double the speed of the westerly flow of air across the ocean.
Fast moving storm systems embedded in the jet stream were fueled by released energy from exceptionally warm sea water as they raced toward the West Coast. Depending on your perspective, it was either a recipe for disaster or a powder hound’s ultimate fantasy.
The Storm King wasted no time in fulfilling the prophecies for a heavy season. As a harbinger of things to come, rare September snowfall hit the mountains. Enough, in fact, that twice that month CalTrans was forced to require tire chains on Interstate 80 and other local roadways.
In late October, activity picked up again as a strong flow of moist, subtropical air from near Hawaii inundated the Sierra with heavy rain and high elevation snow. More than 10 inches of rain soaked Blue Canyon that month, more than double its October average. The jet stream soon shifted, however, and a week later the first in a series of cold storms from the Gulf of Alaska slammed the West Coast.
Southern Pacific crews check the lead engine in Truckee after clearing track in 1983.
This relentless stream of powerful weather systems buried the Truckee-Tahoe region. Most resort operators had never seen anything like it. And to top off November, the last storm was a wild one, dumping four feet of snow in downtown Truckee which paralyzed traffic and closed schools for two days.
Eastbound train coming through the Donner Pass tunnel and snowshed system. In the mid-1990s this portion of track was abandoned and the rails removed. Today hikers and mountain bikers explore it during the summer months.
Alpine Meadows Ski Resort picked up 87 inches of snow that month, which got the ski season off to a great start. By Dec. 1, more than 6 feet of snow covered the ground at Norden, compared to an average of 11 inches for that time of year.
After that barrage there was a three week lull between storms, typical for December or January in the Sierra. And then, just before the economically important Christmas-New Year’s holiday period, the most intense storms so far roared in with damaging winds and 10 feet of new snow. Fierce winds associated with this dynamic weather system exceeded 90-mph at Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County. The Golden Gate Bridge was closed for only the third time ever.
Southern Pacific cook stands on 15-foot high snow measuring stake near Donner Pass. That’s a solid snowpack if he can walk on it without skis or snow shoes.
In the mountains, Donner Pass received another 7 feet of snow and the snowpack rose to a solid 11 feet deep. Despite all the holiday traffic, CalTrans shut down westbound Interstate 80 for two full days. Power lines were ripped down by the tempest and communities in Truckee and Lake Tahoe went dark. Some customers in the Truckee area were without electricity for 13 days while temperatures plummeted to 7 degrees below zero.
Southern Pacific telegrapher’s cabin buried near Donner Pass in March 1983.
By New Year’s Day mountain highways were clear for everyone to enjoy some of the best holiday skiing in memory. Alpine Meadows reported a base of 10 to 15 feet while Sugar Bowl boasted 12 to 18 feet of white gold. A strong ridge of high pressure dominated for the first half of January, blocking the Pacific storm track. Sunny days and warmer temperatures gave locals hope that the destructive storms had abated.
The 3-story Soda Springs Hotel remained open during the 1983 winter despite overwhelming snowfall.
But on Jan. 21, 1983, another juiced up Pacific storm barreled onshore, pounding California with heavy rain and snow, high winds, and massive waves along the coast. The surfing town of Santa Cruz was inundated with an incredible 25 inches of rain in 36 hours and up to 10 feet of new snow immobilized Lake Tahoe. By early February, the snowpack at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort had reached 26 feet deep.
Southern Pacific crews shoveling the roof of a collapsed building next to the concrete train snowshed.
Storms in February, March and April continued to batter California with rain, wind and snow. The statewide precipitation averaged 200% of normal in February and 300% in March. Around the first of March another huge cyclone dumped 7 more feet of snow on Donner Pass.
In Truckee and Lake Tahoe, where residents were longing for sunshine, it snowed every day from April 18-30, including 40 inches on the last weekend of the month. Snow depths at Soda Springs (shown here in April) exceeded 17 feet; some of the deepest snow since World War II.
In terms of precipitation amounts, runoff volumes and the geographical extent of winter flood damage, 1983 is unparalleled in modern history. The severe weather killed 36 people, injured 481, and caused $1.2 billion in economic losses in California.
In late August 1983 my brother Tom and I took the tram up to the top of Squaw Valley for some summer skiing. Note the blast holes from avalanche control exposed in the lingering snowpack.
The impact was so devastating to the Golden State and around the world that 1983 is the year that put the previously little-known word “El Niño” into the lexicon of the media and popular culture.
Old timers always refer back to the epic winter of 1952 when comparing snowdepths. In 1952, the snowpack in Tahoe City reached about 20 feet deep, an incredible event that even 1983 coudn’t beat.
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