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#288: WINTER UPDATE: TAHOE LOSES TO CORONAVIRUS

Lake Tahoe succumbed to Coronavirus mitigation in a big way last weekend. Just before lucrative Spring Break week and as the juiciest storm of this sketchy winter season was rolling in, Vail Resorts decided to close their three popular ski areas in the region — Northstar, Heavenly Valley and Kirkwood — due to the virus and its potential health impacts on their employees and guests: Other resorts, big and small, corporate or privately-owned, briefly resisted the sudden and unprecedent…

Lake Tahoe succumbed to Coronavirus mitigation in a big way last weekend. Just before lucrative Spring Break week and as the juiciest storm of this sketchy winter season was rolling in, Vail Resorts decided to close their three popular ski areas in the region — Northstar, Heavenly Valley and Kirkwood — due to the virus and its potential health impacts on their employees and guests: Other resorts, big and small, corporate or privately-owned, briefly resisted the sudden and unprecedented move, but then quickly fell in domino fashion.

Cross-country and back-country alpine skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling are still robust outdoor activities to be enjoyed, especially in all the fresh snow falling this week, but they represent a minuscule fraction of the region’s important winter economy. As a final nail in the coffin, brew pubs, bars, wine tasting rooms, casinos and restaurant dining rooms are closing too. Wow! So that’s where we stand.

Let’s roll back the tape and review how this winter played out up to this point. Here’s a quick photo essay:

A Sept. 29 snowfall got the juices flowing for an early winter, but the next two months were warm and bone dry. In early November, Squaw Valley fired up its snow-guns although warm temperatures limited production. This is the base-area beginner area for little tykes. The weather-protected moving carpet conveyance whisks kids along as young as 3 up for their first lessons.

A parade of cold winter storms beginning Thanksgiving weekend did wonders for skiing and riding conditions at Tahoe resorts. Squaw Valley looking good for early season.

High pressure in January 2020 kept storms away, but let low-level stratus clouds form due to temperature inversions. In a mixing atmosphere it’s warmer at the surface and the air temperature cools with altitude. An inversion reverses that temperature profile and the colder air near the surface triggers the formation of ground or low-level clouds. This photo from Diamond Peak ski resort shows an inversion-cloud formation over western Nevada looking south.

Low-level inversion clouds in the Tahoe Basin on January 25, 2012. I took this image from the Mt. Rose Highway under a full moon. Looking west with Squaw Valley in distance on right.

After a record-setting February with virtually no rain or snow, on March 14 the National Weather Service warned that the biggest storm of the winter was heading to the Sierra. This was not a jet stream-driven cold front barreling through, it was a slow-moving system that was going to drift around for awhile giving it time to put down some decent snow and precipitation. In fact, it’s still overhead but weakening today. (March 19, 2020).

In three days, the Sierra snowpack improved markedly, but the regional watershed is still suffering a severe water deficit. There are more cold and wet storm systems expected in the first part of next week, but the pace will have to pick up to erase the hydrologic deficit and make this a proverbial “Miracle March.”

Associated Press photo from Heavenly Valley after the storm’s first snowfall had really improved skiing conditions in the Tahoe Sierra — with much more to come. Unfortunately, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, within days all resorts had closed for the season.

This graphic is courtesy of Jan Null, owner of Golden Gate Weather Services. A quick look confirms that parts of southern California got its fair share of precipitation this winter, but the most vital watershed and reservoir systems are all in the north state. The 55% bubble in the northern Sierra Nevada represents the 8 Station Sierra Index, the critical aggregate of 8 important precipitation gauges on the Sierra west slope. Conditions are even more desiccated in the southern Sierra.

View past the historic Thunderbird Lodge on the point looking towards Mt. Tallac and the beautiful, high-elevation Desolation Wilderness area, circa January 2020. There may be a nasty bug skulking around, but nothing can take away from the breathtaking beauty of a Lake Tahoe winter. Even a sketchy one.

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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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