Weather History



In the early 1990s while going to school at the University
of Nevada in Reno, I had a conversation with John James, an associate geography
professor at UNR, the Nevada State Climatologist, and my academic advisor. I
told him that I wanted to produce a book on the weather history of the Sierra
Nevada. He said that it was a great idea, it would be an important contribution
to regional meteorology and climatology, and that he wished he had done it
himself. The book never happened, but I have been writing about weather ever

As a starting point for the weather history project, John
James, who over the years became a good friend, suggested that I read George
Rippey Stewart’s classic 1941 novel “Storm.” The storyline is based on a
fictional Pacific weather system that batters drought-stricken California in January
1935 with rain, wind and snow.

Cover jacket from my copy of Stewart’s Storm, 1947 edition.

I am currently working on an illustrated Tahoe-Sierra Snow
book for publication next summer that will include profiles of the Top 10
snowiest winters at Donner Pass. (1935 ranks #8 with a total of 56 feet.) Over
the past two weeks I’ve been perusing newspaper archives to study weather
activity from that year for the new book.

Although it’s been more than 20 years since I read Storm, I quickly recognized real-life
weather events in 1935 that most likely provided important story ideas for the
dramatic subplots that Stewart utilized in his novel a few years later. I’ve
included a few in this Nugget.

In his book, Stewart does not use this October 1934 aviation incident. Sensitivity to the victim’s families may have made the topic off limits, as well as military secrecy before WWII.  In November 1942, an AT-7 Navigator aircraft carrying four crew members on a routine training flight disappeared over the Southern Sierra. Sixty-three years later, in 2005, the body of airman Leo M. Mustonen was discovered near a receding glacier in remote Kings Canyon. In 2007 the remains of Ernest G. Munn was discovered as more ice melted. Munn had enlisted in the Army at age 23 to serve in World War II. Before he left he kissed his sisters and told his mother never to cut her long hair. His mother lived to 102, never cut her hair and died awaiting word on his fate.

Stewart’s main character and protagonist is a powerful, extra-tropical storm. He tracks the weather system from its inception in the western Pacific Ocean to its rampage over California, where it flooded part of the Sacramento Valley; stalled a
westbound transcontinental streamliner train by track washout; and dumped 20
feet of snow on Highway 40 near Donner Pass, shutting down the road. Stewart
named his mythical superstorm Maria, pronounced “Ma-rye-a.”

Railroad crews shovel snow from the roof of a building along the Southern Pacific RR tracks in Truckee in 1935. 

Reading Storm in
the 1990s, a half century after its release, I was struck by its prescient tone,
especially when compared to the epic winter of 1952 that followed 11 years after
the book’s publication. During January 1952, a powerful Pacific storm just like
“Maria” barreled into California. And in an impressive example of life-imitating-art, the Sacramento Valley was flooded, a luxury streamliner train
became snowbound in deep drifts, and Highway 40 was blocked for 30 consecutive
days by snow. That Jan. snowstorm in ’52 dumped 154 inches on Donner Pass in 8 days.

Stewart wrote about an electrical lineman named Rick who slips and falls from a pole while repairing a broken wire on the Central Transcontinental Lead. Rick’s sternum was injured when he fell onto his ski poles and the injury led to the lineman’s death in the snow.

Storm is often cited as the inspiration to
US Navy meteorologists in assigning female names to Pacific tropical storms
during World War II. The book’s best-selling paperback edition was a popular
read for deployed troops. After the war, the practice of naming these weather
systems shifted to Atlantic hurricanes and eventually to tropical storms around
the globe. 

Stewart went easy on his characters at times. In 1935 a highway worker died in an avalanche, but in his fictionalized version two snowplow crewmen are buried in a slide, but both walk away unhurt.

Stewart’s “Maria” also inspired the song, “They Call the
Wind Maria” written for the 1951 musical Paint
Your Wagon
starring Clint Eastwood. The popular song has been covered by
many artists, including most recently Mariah Carey.

Heavy rain and snow during the winter of 1935 was good news for California and Lake Tahoe. The region had been decimated by years of drought and Lake Tahoe was at its lowest level in history. Giant pumps were being used to suck water out of the lake to feed the Truckee River. 

George R. Stewart is the author of several good books
related to California history, including The
California Trail
, Donner Pass,
and his Donner Party classic Ordeal by
. He wrote more than 20 books in all.

Stewart adapts his story to this headline for a young Reno couple reported missing during a big snowstorm. In Storm, Max Arnim and his love interest “Jen” had attempted to drive over Donner Pass, lost control of the vehicle, and crashed over an embankment. Their car and bodies were found days after the storm.

In February 1935, the $5 million dirigible Macon crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Point Sur, about 120 miles south of San Francisco. Lt. Commander Herbert V. Wiley told reporters that he didn’t think wind caused his 785-foot long airship to dive 3,000 feet and crash stern-first into the ocean. However, his second in command, Lt. Commander Jesse L. Kenworth, blamed the incident on “a heavy wind gust.” This is another incident of a weather-related military mishap that Stewart declined to develop as a subplot in his book. Protecting the U.S. military was every citizen’s patriotic duty in the late 1930s in the lead-up to the United States’ entry into world War II. 









Weather History



Among some longtime locals, the collapse of Squaw Valley’s Blyth Arena on March 29, 1983, is a legendary tale of conspiracy, mystery, and subterfuge. Even after 30 years, unsubstantiated rumors still persist that the structure, completed in 1959 for the 1960 Winter Olympics, was purposely destroyed to expand parking at the famed resort.

Analysis by engineers and Squaw Valley management determined the likely cause to be inadequate engineering combined with heavy snow buildup during the big winter of 1983. These claims, however, have done little to assuage those who still think dynamite brought the building down. 

When Alex Cushing, owner of the relatively primitive Squaw Valley ski area, managed to land the 1960 Winter Olympics in the spring of 1955, plans for building the required infrastructure got underway in earnest. It was a huge undertaking with a $16 million price tag.

As part of Alex Cushing’s pitch to land the 1960 Winter Games, he promised that the United States would build a brand new Olympic Village from scratch, which pleased many non-European delegates during this Cold War period.

One of the key structures for the VIII Olympic Winter Games was the Blyth Memorial Arena. Easily accessible by both spectators and athletes, the arena was a modern and uniquely engineered structure that had won first place over 600 other entries in the 1958 Progressive Architecture Design Award for recreational facilities.

Blyth Arena was enclosed on three sides with the south side open. The building was designed similar to a suspension bridge with a span of about 100 yards. There were 16 steel support columns (six on each end of the arena) that held up the roof, but no true support columns within the perimeter of the arena. The roof beams were a clear span from the ridge to the side walls and abutments. Cables anchored to concrete blocks were attached to the top center of each beam, so the dead weight of the blocks counterbalanced the roof load.

Blyth Arena was still under construction during the February 1959 North American Championship winter sports competition, which was billed as a “dry run” for athletes who hoped to compete in the upcoming 1960 Olympics.

The west and east sections of the roof were actually separate structures capable of flexing independently under the weight of snow. The arena could seat up to 9,000 spectators plus room for 2,500 people standing, and provided a 360 degree unobstructed view of the ice rink.

Blyth Arena had already withstood some heavy hitting winters such as 1969 and 1982, but the 1983 season was a monster with rapid-fire storms. It still ranks as one of the worst in California history. (See Nugget #257)

Unlike most buildings in snow country, which are beefed up structurally to passively carry anticipated snow loads, Blyth was designed with an active system to make the roof shed snow. The roof itself consisted of galvanized metal with the lower section heated so that snow at the bottom would constantly slide off into concrete troughs at the west and east ends of the building. That allowed snow on the upper portion of the roof to also slide to the bottom rim.

Heat was produced by the huge refrigeration compressor that kept the ice rink artificially frozen. In the years following the Winter Games, however, the compressor was replaced with a smaller, more energy efficient unit supplemented by oil-fired boilers.

Note lack of snow on Blyth Arena roof when snow-shedding system was working properly in 1960. Courtesy Bill Briner, Squaw Valley’s official photographer during the Olympics.

During the 1970s, complaints that the roof leaked were sent to the U.S. Forest Service which had assumed ownership of the building after the 1960 Games. Instead of simply caulking the cable-related openings so that the building’s active snow-load management system could continue to function properly, the Forest Service coated the entire roof with fiberglass waterproofing. Once that was done, snow no longer slid off the roof as designed.   

During the summer of 1982, the Forest Service surrendered ownership of Blyth Arena when Congress passed legislation to liquidate the federal holdings in Squaw Valley. Subsequently the former Olympic Village (present-day Olympic Village Inn) was sold to a developer and Blyth was purchased by Squaw Valley Ski Corporation.

After Squaw bought Blyth, Peter Bansen, a Ski Corp employee, volunteer fireman, and former assistant manager of the rink, took over running the facility.

By late December 1982, deep accumulations on the roof of Blyth threatened the structure. To reduce the load, Ski Corp brought in snow cats to plow the roof; snow depths ranged from four to eight feet. This winter was far from done, however, and heavy wet snow continued to pile up in the Tahoe Sierra. Frequent storm days drove skiers off the mountain and onto the protected ice rink making for handsome profits.

The classic ski movie “Hot Dog” was being filmed at Squaw during the winter of ’83. The production company was using portions of the Blyth facility for storing props and equipment. Many Squaw Valley and North Shore locals were cast as extras in this flick.

On March 29, 1983, Blyth Arena was booked with a Tiny Tots skating session in the morning, public skating in the afternoon and broomball games in between. Peter Bansen went to work at 6 a.m. that morning, fired up the compressors and picked up the receipts from the previous evening.

To this day Bansen doesn’t know why, but as he walked on the rink’s ice surface he looked up at the roof. Two of the huge, steel box beams that supported the roof were bending at just about the middle of their span. Deeply concerned, Bansen met with Ski Corp’s General Manager Jimmy Mott and asked him to come down to the rink to check out the situation. After looking at the Blyth support beams, Mott told Bansen “I don’t know what I’m looking at – just do whatever you think is best.”

Bansen wasn’t sure if a roof failure was imminent or even likely, but he decided to err on the side of caution. He closed the arena for the day. He changed the answering machine message, called all employees and told them not to come in, and when the “Hot Dog” production crew arrived he killed the electricity and told them there was a power failure. To be sure that none of his staff entered the building he changed the locks. When he left, he believed that the facility was empty.

Once outside, he inspected the building and noticed that the lower cables that supported the two distorted beams were starting to fail. As each individual wire in the woven cable snapped, it generated a chilling, flat twang. Bizarrely, the roof didn’t appear to have too much snow on it, except for a drift in the middle that extended from the edge of the roof almost to the ridge. 

Rink manager Pete Bansen was walking across the parking lot when a huge portion of the roof collapsed with a loud boom and billowing cloud of dust. Despite all of Bansen’s precautions, Squaw Valley employee John Moors had entered the building to work on a special project. A large chunk of snow trapped him inside the building for a few minutes, but luckily he escaped unscathed and there were no injuries or fatalities

A forensic engineering report released in 1987 pointed out that the arena was structurally under-designed for snow loads at that location. In 1977 a group of consultants had agreed that the structure was in good shape, but recommended additional support to bring the building up to code. Money was spent on improvements, but nothing was done to increase the load capacity.

The collapse of Blyth Arena left a gaping hole in our collective memories of all the historic events that occurred there, including the U.S. hockey team’s miraculous 1960 victory over the Gold Medal-defending Russians.  

Until its collapse, Blyth Arena had been very popular with locals and visitors alike who enjoyed the year ‘round skating there. Figure skating exhibitions, youth hockey and broomball leagues brought in thousands of people every year.      

Blyth Memorial Arena was a conspicuous landmark and epicenter for Olympic competition during those glorious Winter Games at Squaw Valley.

Special thanks to Pete Bansen for sharing his comprehensive overview of the Blyth Arena history and collapse.

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Weather History



Over-snow vehicles are ubiquitous today in Tahoe’s mountain country. They range from high powered “sleds” as modern snowmobiles are commonly called, that scream up the steepest slopes to the super expensive and sophisticated snow cats that can level moguls and groom a resort’s snow surface into ribbons of smooth corduroy.

Outfitted with specially designed implements, modern snow cats enable operators to trick out perfectly formed half pipes and other artificial terrain features popular with snowboarders and skiers. Improving technology for these rigs has been a boon for both backcountry power-sports enthusiasts and downhill skiers and riders looking for a smooth level surface on the hill.

Modern snow-cats and snow groomers are loaded with advanced technology and can have price tags north of $250,000.

The first mechanical over-snow vehicle was invented by Virgil D. White of New Hampshire in 1913. Over the course of nine years he modified a Model T Ford automobile, substituting runners or skis for the front wheels. Another set of rear wheels were added and traction belts installed to provide additional grip on the snow.

The traction belt consisted of a series of metal plates joined together by steel links. The outer plates were cleated for traction and side-slipping protection and the inside plates were curved to fit over the tires and act as track guides. The steering runners were fitted with keels to facilitate turning and prevent slide-slipping. White’s “Snowmobile Attachment” invention worked reasonably well, but it never reached production.

White’s “snow-mobile” adaptation to winter travel was still being used in the early 1940s as depicted in this photo of a car on Highway 40 near Donner Pass. Note skis on the front in place of tires and traction belts on the drive wheels.

The first commercially successful snowmobile was designed and built by Carl Eliason in northern Wisconsin in 1924. Eliason, an auto mechanic, steam engineer, blacksmith and general store owner, struggled with a foot deformity and could not ski or snowshoe into the forest to hunt, fish, and trap with his friends. To make up for his disability, Eliason used his mechanical knowledge and old fashioned Yankee ingenuity.

Working in his shop, Eliason built a small over-snow vehicle using various automobile and bicycle parts, powered by a 2.5 horsepower, liguid-cooled outboard boat engine. This primitive motorized toboggan utilized four snow skis to glide on and a cleated conveyor belt webbing to provide floatation and propulsion. The driver steered by a rope attached to two short skis mounted under the front of the rig.

The Eliason Motor Toboggan was patented in 1927 and sold to hunters, fishermen and trappers. Over time the prototype unit was improved upon and within a few years certain models of the machine could seat up to four passengers and reach speeds of 40 miles per hour.     

Truckee resident James McIver, Jr. was exactly the kind of man a pioneer mountain community like Truckee, California needed in the early days. An expert horseshoer, dairyman, dynamite technician, and engine mechanic—McIver was a man of many talents.

In the early 1930s he built one of the first snowmobiles; a bulky machine built from a kit that adapted a Fordson Tractor power plant and drive for traveling through snow. Unlike Eliason’s nimble motor toboggan, McIver’s “Snow Devil” utilized two long rotating cylinders with raised screw threads welded to their surface. The two rotors were chain-driven to rotate and literally screw their way through snow.

McIver’s rig could travel up to 5 miles per hour and haul supplies and passengers on the sled it pulled behind. This rugged, reliable vehicle was too slow to travel very long distances, but one year Jim and Constable Tom Dolly used it to deliver mail regularly from Truckee to Hobart Mills five miles away. During the 1986 World’s Fair in Vancouver, Canada, a transportation movie in the California Exhibit showed Jim and his snow devil crossing a frozen Donner Lake.

FRONT VIEW: This photograph, taken by Judge Vernon of Tahoe City, shows the Snow Devil pulling a sled with passengers, and Jim McIver on the hood. Mechanic Glenn Coffy is driving. Coffy owned an automobile repair garage in Truckee.

REAR VIEW: Note cyclinder drive chain on left hand side of Snow Devil. McIver’s original snowmobile is on display at the Heidrick Agricultural History Museum in Woodland, California, where they have a collection of antique tractors and trucks. 

Snowmobiles served a purpose, but their small size and exposure to the winter elements limited its function. Inventors and innovators realized that there was a market for a more substantial over-snow vehicle, such as one that could carry utility repair crews into the mountains or troops into war. One of the first successful innovators was Emmitt Tucker.

Tucker was born in a log cabin near snowy Grants Pass, Oregon, in 1892, and even at a young age he began dreaming of a vehicle that could travel through deep, soft snow. In the mid-1920s he moved to southern California where he continued working on his idea of an over-snow tractor. Similar to McIver’s corkscrew-powered snow devil, Tucker built several spiral driven machines that also worked on a screw principle to move though snow.

Dissatisfied with the machine’s performance, he searched for a better system. By the late 1930s, he developed the first Tucker Sno-Cat using a steel track that rotated around a rear-mounted pontoon. For balance on his first unit he installed three skis, one up front and two in the rear. To better position his R&D, in 1942 he moved to Grass Valley, California, just below the Sierra snow belt. He set up a production line and was able to sell about 70 of his prototype Model 222. Some of his first customers were the railroads, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

While modern Tucker Sno-cats utilize 4 sets of tracks, a few experimental units and early production models used 2 sets as seen here in the 1950s. 

In 1943, the U.S. Weather Bureau assigned Dr. Robert W. Gerdel to work with Dr. James E. Church from the University of Nevada-Reno who had started a snow surveying system in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Dr. Gerdel was then authorized to establish a snow laboratory at Soda Springs near Donner Pass where scientists could study snowpack hydrology and snow physics.

This M-7 model was the first snow cat used on snow surveys at the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory near Donner Pass, circa 1945.

It was the perfect location for Emmitt Tucker to test his new invention and the scientists at the Snow Lab were more than happy to put Tucker’s Sno-Cats through their paces. Soon the U.S. government and military were testing snow tractor technology across the country, and the Tucker Sno-Cat would later become famous around the world.  

Hydrologists studying Sierra snowpack in 1948. Note that their M-7 snow cat is hauling lots of equipment. Before these over-snow vehicles were introduced, all gages and equipment had to be carried by men on skis or snowshoes. Castle Peak near Donner Pass in background. 

The United States military started working on troop carriers early in World War II when strategists were planning a winter invasion of Norway. The M-7 model shown above was an early prototype.

This Canadian high-speed troop carrier is model CL-61, AKA the “Rat.” Developed by Canadair, it had articulated steering and full power through rear take-off to all four drive belts, circa 1955. 

Over the past six decades, snow tractor and snowmobile development has produced vehicles that barely resemble these earliest prototypes, but the mechanical concepts for today’s rigs are primarily based on the work of those early dreamers of mechanized transportation.  

This 1957 Kristi Ber-Kat model rear engine speedster reminds me something from a Jetson’s cartoon. There were only 7 made between 1955 & 1957.

This beauty is a Bombardier-designed “School Bus” during testing by the California utility company Pacific Gas & Electric for power line patrol at Soda Springs near Donner Pass, circa 1951.

Propeller-driven vehicles like this colorful Indian Air Snow Sled were good for travel in open untimbered or sparsely timbered regions such as the upper Midwest. Powered by an airplane engine, they are fast but ill-suited to either steep slopes or densely forested areas.

Air-propeller sled zipping along in dry Colorado powder. This type of vehicle performed poorly in deep Sierra Cement. Note uncaged prop behind driver.

*Special thanks to Dr. Robert Gerdel’s son Chuck who has shared many photographs from his father’s collection with me over the years.




Weather History



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.






Weather History



It’s been 75 years since the Tahoe-Truckee region was crushed under nearly 70 feet of snow in 1938. And similar to this winter, that epic season started off with a very wet fall, followed by a bone dry January. But the Storm King roared back after that and never let up until setting a snowfall record on Donner Pass that still stands today.

Most Tahoe winters exhibit a roller coaster ride of sun and storm, with an eventual accumulation of about 35 feet of snow on Donner Pass. The 2013 water year started off with a bang, but has recently taken a respite and we’ve seen hardly a flake since New Years. January, normally the wettest month of the winter has been a bust this year, but there is still plenty of time to ratchet up the storm machine. It’s a climatologically normal pattern and we just go along for the ride.

Pre World War II snowplows combined blades and blowers to remove snow.

The snowiest winter in history dumped 68 feet on Donner Pass and like this year the season started off with a few major weather events, but then precipitation stalled. Conditions were wet and mild during the fall of 1937, but nothing out of the ordinary. When the season’s first major low pressure system swept in off the ocean in the middle of December dumping snow on the peaks, mountain residents hardly noticed.

After that first storm, however, temperatures began to rise, raising snow levels to near 9,000 feet. Driven by gale force winds, a sub-tropical system surged into the mountains unloading 5 inches of rain in 24 hours. The deluge transformed portions of vital trans-Sierra Highway 40 into a raging river and shut down the road. Gullies and streams filled beyond capacity, and rushing water ripped out 180 feet of train track near Emigrant Gap, terminating train travel too.

Dog sleds were frequently used in Truckee during big winters. In a pinch, any breed will do. Note skier at far left. 

All the creeks draining Sierra canyons on Tahoe’s West Shore overflowed, inundating estates with more than 6 feet of debris-laden water. Racing waters displaced boulders and downed trees over Highway 28 making travel perilous and eventually impossible. Conditions were worse near South Lake Tahoe where a roaring wall of water swept down Glen Alpine Canyon near Fallen Leaf Lake carrying away homes and roadway.

The tropic-like storm dumped nearly 10 inches of rain on Lake Tahoe, raising the lake’s water level 9 inches in three days. When the skies finally cleared, there was barely a foot of snow left on the mountains. Most of January was dry, but at the end of the month a barrage of cold storms inundated higher elevations with 12 feet of snow in less than a week. From then on the storms hit hard and fast, swept along by winds gusting to 90 mph. It began a siege of extreme weather that would last for 21 consecutive days.

The highway over Echo Summit to South Lake Tahoe was rarely plowed before World War II, but that didn’t stop these ardent motorists.

Small towns throughout the Sierra were inundated by the snowfall. Tahoe residents shoveled 17 feet of new snow in 16 days. Truckee businesses and expensive lake front homes were in danger of collapse so men and boys were hired to remove snow. There were no mail deliveries to Tahoe City for more than a week and no fresh food available for twice that long.

The heavy snow was a financial boon for locals who could earn 50 cents an hour shoveling roofs, nearly twice the prevailing wage. This is Frank A. Titus, an early resident of Truckee and an engineer on the Lake Tahoe Railway. 

In February a week-long blizzard buried Tahoe communities with another 9 feet of snow. At one point Tahoe City was completely isolated with no automobile traffic and all communication cut off for two weeks.

By Valentine’s Day, the snow was 20 feet deep on Donner Summit. During a rare break in the weather, the steamer that regularly circled Lake Tahoe with mail and deliveries arrived back in Tahoe City. The captain mentioned that if anyone wanted some horsemeat, it was available at Glenbrook, Nevada. Apparently a caretaker there had shot a horse due to injury and was willing to share the meat if anyone was interested.

Snow piling up at Homewood on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore, circa 1938.

The story spread to San Francisco and even Los Angeles that snowbound Tahoe residents were running out of food and near starvation. Thoughts of the Donner Party tragedy began to crop up. On February 17, the San Francisco Examiner quoted Tahoe City Constable Harry Johanson as saying he was “holding in reserve 1,000 pounds of fresh horsemeat, should the situation get serious and the need for fresh meat become acute.”

California Governor Merriam was alerted and the San Francisco Call Bulletin newspaper enlisted United Airlines to organize an emergency food drop at Tahoe City.  Local residents built signal fires in the middle of the Tahoe City Golf Course and that night an airplane swung in low to 400 feet, dropping 10 boxes of bread, meat and vegetables. Most of the the boxes shattered when they hit trees, but the contents were safely retrieved by cross-country skiers and distributed around the community. 

Tahoe City residents on skis returning with a battered box dropped in the emergency airlift.

The winter of ’38 started late, but made up for it with powerful storms in February and March. By May, a record 819 inches of snow had buried Donner Pass, the greatest seasonal snowfall since measurements began in 1878.






Tahoe Snowstorms Weather History



SYNOPTIC SET UP: A “mother ship” of low pressure that originated in the Gulf of Alaska remained stationary off the Pacific Northwest coast as it shunted slugs of deep tropical moisture into northern California over the course of five days, from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2, 2012.

The official warnings were certainly ominous—an extended period of torrential rain, high elevation snow levels, and potentially major flooding on the Truckee River. Classic ingredients for what meteorologists call a “wet mantle” flood event when heavy rain washes out an existing snowpack and overwhelms the watershed, and streams and rivers breach their banks.

Yes it seemed that the components that can cause damaging floods were there (except for an established low elevation snowpack), but as it turned out the final surge of moisture turned to snow over much of the higher elevations which slowed snowmelt considerably.

Knife-like back edge to final cold front that swept through Northern California on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012. Dry air behind the front ended heavy precipitation earlier than projected and cooler air dropped snow levels quicker than expected. The scenario eliminated threat of major flooding on Truckee River.

Residents living within the Truckee River flood plain between Squaw Creek and Donner Creek dodged a bullet this time, but that’s not to say their homes aren’t at risk. Those five days of rain and snow definitely had the potential to fulfill all the National Weather Service warnings for the Tahoe-Truckee watershed, but luckily the region was spared serious damage. In fact, we picked up a boatload of moisture and ski resorts are loving the two to four feet of fresh snow that blasted the upper elevations.

The 1997 New Years Flood damaged many homes located in the Truckee River floodplain between Squaw Valley and Truckee. They are still at risk from major winter floods.

In a reversal of the normal situation where Sierra Crest-based resorts usually receive the most snowfall, Northstar California reported the greatest storm total with 47 inches on the upper mountain.

Accumulations near lake level were measly—consider that Squaw Valley picked up 42 inches of snow at 8,200 feet, but only two inches at the base.

Virtually all the major resorts are in fairly good shape for the economically vital holiday season that’s only weeks away. If the Storm King doesn’t deliver more snow in the interim, when cold air arrives snowmaking will beef up the thin snowpack at resort bases.

When snow started falling at lake level in the Tahoe Basin on Sunday morning, flood warnings on the Truckee River were cancelled.

The recent stormy period definitely put the region on course for an above average 2013 water year. Although no records were broken, rainfall totals were impressive: Tahoe City saw 6.72 inches; Donner Lake picked up about 11 inches; Blue Canyon more than 14 inches; and La Porte, north of Truckee, was doused with nearly 18 inches. Brandy Creek, elevation 1,300 feet on the Upper Sacramento River drainage was the wettest spot in California with nearly two feet of rain.  


Lake Tahoe’s water level rose about 3.5 inches during the storm. According to the USGS, just 1/8th of an inch of water in Tahoe is equal to 397,538,220 gallons!

The NWS dubbed the persistent flow of Pacific moisture an “atmospheric river,” an apt term to describe the amount of water that poured down on the north state.  Seasonal precipitation totals in the Sierra were boosted significantly, with the Northern Sierra 8 Station Index currently averaging 220 percent of normal. (The index represents the aggregate of eight sites ranging from Highway 50 to Mt. Shasta.)

As of Dec. 5, 2012, water year 2013 is off to a roaring start, better precipitation-wise than the snowbound winter of 2011, and even ahead of the pace of 1983, the wettest winter since the index was established in 1922.

The Truckee River flood warning was issued when the NWS expected freezing levels near 9,000 feet, accompanied by heavy rain that would come rushing out of watersheds west of Highway 89, including Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. Forecasters predicted conditions akin to what occurred in late December 1955 during a similar hydrological event. It was called the “Storm of the Century.”

For 10 days during Christmas season 1955, a series of storms from Hawaii poured wet snow and rain on the Sierra and Northern Nevada. Officials said there was no cause for alarm, but Reno business people remembered the 1950 Thanksgiving flood that heavily damaged the city and they swung into action. Volunteers and National Guardsmen stacked walls of sandbags along the riverbank and in store entrances. Contractors supplied cranes to clear logjams and debris in the Truckee River. Parking meters were removed from downtown bridges.
Sure enough, two days before Christmas more than two inches of rain pounded
Reno in 24 hours. (Reno picked up only 1.34 inches of rain in the recent five day event.) Upstream nearly every power plant and bridge on the Truckee River was destroyed.

Downtown Reno underwater during the 1955 wet mantle flood event on the Truckee River.

Wet snow pulled down power lines, severing communication between Western Nevada and California. Logs jammed against bridge supports, and four feet of water flowed into Reno¹s downtown district. Many residents fled, although not before hanging their gifts high in their Christmas trees.

At Stead Air Force Base, holiday furloughs were cancelled, and hundreds of airmen with radios, jeeps, and trucks joined National Guard troops in sand-bagging and policing the streets. Finally, on Christmas Eve, cold air from the Gulf of Alaska turned the rain to snow, and the river began to recede. Overnight the swirling flakes descended on Reno¹s flood-ravaged streets, covering the debris with a mantle of snow. Reno residents awoke to their first white Christmas in years.

Ever since it was built in the Truckee River floodplain, Reno has had to deal with the volatile stream. Courtesy Reno Gazette Journal. 

This time we escaped unscathed, but whenever the Truckee threatens to spill over its banks, it helps to recall the Weather Bureau statement before the 1955 flood that “no menacing storms appear likely.”


Between storms in Carnelian Bay on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012.








Weather History



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.










Climate Change Weather History



In response to a provocative prediction for accelerated California climate change that I read in the Sacramento Bee newspaper last week, I felt compelled to contribute the following blog to the dialogue.

Warnings about regional climate change were kicked up a notch earlier this month with the recently released report by Robert Shibatani, a Sacramento-based hydrologist who is also CEO of The Shibatani Group Inc.

This new analysis offers dire predictions for the Sierra snowpack based on projected warming temperatures in California. The report, “Accelerated Climate Change: How a Shifting Flow Regime is Redefining Water Governance in California” focuses on the challenge of managing the Golden State’s water resources as snowmelt and river flow patterns are altered in forced global warming conditions.

It should be understood from the start that according to the Shibatani Group website, the company is “an international leader at assessing, documenting, and explaining the implications of forced climate change, climatic variability, and what that means to water supply and water resource[s]…” Since the group provides professional services and preemptive planning for watershed management based on climate change, the company has a vested interest in the field.

If Sacramento-based hydrologist Robert Shibatani’s projections verify, California is in for some “interesting times.”

Shibatani’s projections are derived from numerous sources that include a 2011 U.S. Bureau of Reclamation-released document on western climate risk assessments. In his base assessment, Shibatani assumes a rapid 2 degree Celsius (3.6F) warming over the temperature averages from the 1961-1990 timeframe. Air temperature is expected to steadily increase in the 21st century, but this report assumes that a dramatic temperature departure “is likely to occur in the next decade,” which explains the “accelerated climate change” reference in the title.

Based on such quick warming over the next 10 years or so, Shibatani anticipates a greater than 50 percent reduction in the Sierra snowpack’s April 1 water content (known as the snow water equivalent (SWE)), by the early 2020s. As a hydrologist, it’s an event he considers of “Katrina-esque proportions.” He states that the only difference between a catastrophic flood event and his prediction of a significantly depleted snowpack within a decade or so “is that it will happen every year and with increasing severity, representing a permanent change.”

The Sacramento River drains Northern California’s main snowpack producing regions. North State provides much of the water that Southern Californians rely upon. Climate change may impact that established system.

Climatologists are not predicting a significant shift in the average amount of precipitation California receives each year, but Shibatani argues that much more of it will be in the form of rain as rapidly warming temperatures drive the freezing level (snow level) much higher. His forecast for future decades is even more ominous. By the 2050’s, the report projects a 76 percent reduction in April 1 SWE for the Sacramento watershed fed by the Sierra and northern mountains.

The amount of water that falls in the Sacramento watershed is expected to remain more or less the same, but the snowpack will cover less terrain and the timing of peak Sierra runoff will be earlier and of shorter duration. 

If Shibatani’s expectations are realized,  by the 2070s April 1 runoff will drop 90 percent compared to the 1990s.

An accelerated change of this magnitude would be disastrous for California and create tough challenges for Tahoe resorts, but Shibatani may be getting ahead of himself with the rapid extinction of the Sierra snowpack. Yes, over the past 100 years daily air temperatures at Tahoe City have trended warmer, with overnight lows up more than 4 degrees F. and daily maximums up almost 2 degrees since 1910.

However, over the last 10 years temperatures in Tahoe City have actually trended cooler, a change that was reflected in the updated 1981-2010 climate “normals” released in July 2011 by the National Climatic Data Center. The average daily temp in Tahoe City dropped a half degree; not much but not a warming trend either. At the Truckee Ranger Station, the new normal is cooler by one full degree.

Note the parabolic downward trend over the past decade in Truckee’s daily temperatures.

The new precipitation values have also changed. At Tahoe City precipitation has increased during the last decade, with the new normal up 1.6 inches to 32.66 inches, reflecting very wet winters during the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, which offset the worst drought in history during the late 1980s and early 90s. Average precipitation at the Truckee Ranger Station also increased, but only about half an inch. (Precipitation includes rain plus snow melted for liquid content.)

What NOAA calls “normal” is actually based on the most recent 30-year time span, not the whole period of record. Similar to the decadal Census Bureau cycle, every 10 years NOAA drops the oldest decade and updates new station “normals” by adding the most recent decade and adjusting the average.


At the Central Sierra Snow Lab at 6,900 feet near Donner Pass, the duration of the snowpack on the ground has not changed meaningfully since measurements began in 1946.

There were some other noteworthy adjustments in this most recent climate update which, at least temporarily, contradicts Shibatani’s conclusion that the Golden State is on an accelerated pace for warmer temperatures.

The NWS took a look at 6 key climate stations in California, ranging from Redding Airport south to Modesto Airport. Daily temperatures went down at 4 of the 6 sites, averaging about half a degree. Only Modesto and Redding were warmer.










Weather History



The 2012 water year for the Sierra Nevada won’t officially end until September 30, but for all intents and purposes Tahoe’s lackluster winter is over. It should be no surprise by now that precipitation last season was significantly below normal.

After this early season snowstorm blanketed the Central Sierra on Oct. 7, 2011, Tahoe skiers and resort managers hoped that another big winter was on the way. 

Despite an impressive battery of storms in March that dumped up to nine feet of snow on Tahoe resorts, followed by a wet April, it would have taken something closer to the “Miracle March” of 1991 to raise this year’s disappointing snowpack values to near normal.

The final snow survey of the season indicated an anemic snowpack averaging about 40 percent of normal for early May, varying from 77 percent in the north, 35 percent in the central region, to 20 percent in the Southern Sierra. The recent measurements were in stark contrast to 2011 when the Sierra was still buried under a snowpack 190 percent of normal on May 1.

Lack of natural snow forced Tahoe resorts to rely on snowmaking well into the winter season. Note barren Sierra Crest north of Alpine Meadows ski run.

Fortunately, that huge, late season snowpack a year ago will help mitigate this year’s paltry water supply because California’s major reservoirs are close to or exceeding capacity. With the crucial exception of certain farming districts, no water restrictions are anticipated for the 25 million Californians that rely on the Sierra snowmelt. Locally, reservoir storage in the Truckee River Basin stood at 128 percent of average on May 1.

Ironically, a little more than one year after California Governor Jerry Brown declared the end of a three-year drought in March 2011, the state’s driest winter in 50 or 60 years has desiccated the landscape and more than 60 percent of the Golden State is back to abnormally dry or severe drought status.

Juicy storms in March and April boosted Northern Sierra precipitation values out of the basement, but ultimately they were too little and too late to bump Tahoe to average for the year.

It wasn’t just the West Coast that suffered last winter. The United States ski industry was seriously impacted in 2011 by lack of snow combined with one of the mildest seasons on record that hampered snowmaking. At Lake Tahoe, skier visits at Northstar and Heavenly were down 24 percent compared to 2011.

Skiing conditions were fine in March and April, but the magic came too late to save a busted season. A lack of snow during the all-important New Year holidays and negative publicity about Tahoe conditions took its toll. With such a poor start, there was no way regional resorts would be able to compete with the epic 2011 winter, in my opinion the most hyped ski season in modern times.

Some Tahoe resorts picked up 9 feet of snow during one storm in March.

At the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory, station manager Randall Osterhuber reported that as of May 3, 322 inches of snow had been measured so far. That total of 26.8 feet puts winter 2012 at the 50th least snowiest in 66 years of record keeping.

Precipitation-wise, the 42 plus inches of rain and melted snowfall rank 2012 as the 55th driest since 1946. Not too bad when you consider that at the beginning of March, this year was among the top 10 driest in well over a century.

Skier Dan Scarcia hucks a Squaw Valley cornice on April 2, 2012. Conditions look pretty good here don’t they? Courtesy David Carmazzi/

Looking ahead to next ski season, the cool water readings of 2011 and 2012 have dissipated and transitioned to neutral conditions. In their latest diagnostic discussion released May 3, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center stated that La Niña conditions are unlikely to re-develop later this year, and that half their computer models predict the onset of El Niño and warming sea surface temperatures.

Dan Scarcia struts his stuff at Squaw Valley on April 2, 2012. Courtesy David Carmazzi/

Regardless of whether ENSO conditions are positive, negative or neutral next winter, even a normal season of precipitation will be better than last year and should offer plenty of white stuff for locals and visitors alike.



Climate Change Weather History



Working as a forecaster for the National Weather Service is not a job for the meek, especially if your zone of responsibility includes a region like the volatile Central Sierra. But there have never been so many tools in the arsenal of a professional meteorologist: satellites, buoys, radar, and complex computer modeling all feed into the mix before forecasts are issued.

When predicting high and low temperatures days in advance, weather professionals use climate averages to help base their forecast. Building up and maintaining databases of daily measurements for thousands of locations requires a complex network of automated sensors, official weather stations, and an extensive web of volunteer observers.

In the far western United States, with its challenging topography and myriad microclimates, it’s a vital network that took a century and a half to develop. The very first scientific records of weather, water and climate in the western United States were collected during the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

That epic journey by the “Corp of Discovery” vastly increased the knowledge of flora, fauna, geography, geology, native peoples, trade possibilities and routes of the western wilderness. Reports from that expedition also informed politicians, scientists, and the general public that the land and weather “out west” were substantially different than what most of contemporary Americans knew at the time.

In California there is no evidence that Spanish, Mexican, or indigenous peoples attempted to accurately measure temperature or precipitation. The Spanish missions in California left no thermometer readings, but they kept track of annual wheat harvest production and how much seed was planted, which can help indicate abnormal wet or dry seasons.

It appears that the first instrumental weather observations in California were taken by Captain Frederick W. Beechey during a visit to Yerba Buena (San Francisco) in November and December 1826. Beechey, a British naval officer, anchored in San Francisco Bay during his four year exploration of the Pacific and Bering Strait. Capt. Beechey kept a detailed diary during his stay in Yerba Buena that not only included temperature and rainfall, but also atmospheric pressure, tides, and even magnetic variations.

British naval officer Captain Beechey among the first to document California weather.

During his 1826 reconnaissance of San Francisco Bay, Capt. Beechey and his crew experienced early winter weather. In his Dec. 3 diary entry, the captain noted “As we left the harbor of San Francisco, the shore of which, being newly clothed with snow, had a very wintry appearance.”

In 1812, the Russians had established two settlements along the California coast north of San Francisco Bay. From 1836 to 1840, weather diaries were kept at Fort Ross, with temperature observations made three times a day, as well as air pressure, cloud cover, rain, hail and fog.

Fort Ross is now a California State Park

In the politically charged six years leading up to the 1846 Mexican-American War, no regular weather observations were recorded in California. American sailors conducted detailed weather observations for a time during the fight against Mexico, but the record ended when U.S. warships and troops stationed in Monterey and San Francisco bays were deployed to San Diego and points south.

Several American warships anchored in Monterey and San Francisco bays briefly kept weather records during the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War.

The first temperature reading published in a California newspaper appeared in San Francisco’s California Star in September 1847, noting “a week of hot and calm weather; 92 degrees in the shade.”

After the establishment of a U.S. military base at the Presidio in San Francisco in 1847, the post’s Army Surgeon was required to maintain a “Diary of the Weather” using a thermometer and rain gauge. These scattered and intermittent attempts at taking California’s temperature were of limited value for understanding day to day weather for agricultural and mining purposes.

Ultimately, continuous, long-term weather observations got started with the first wave of forty-niners as they invaded San Francisco in the Gold Rush. Medical doctors played a prominent role when they arrived with delicate instruments and the knowledge of how to use them.

Trained men of science like Dr. G.H. Gibbons and Dr. T.M. Logan would compile reliable observations, but it’s Thomas Tennent who’s recognized as the first person in California to establish a record of daily weather measurements shortly after his arrival in San Francisco.

Sergeant James A. Barwick was an observer with the U.S. Signal Corps in Sacramento, Director of the California Weather Service and Meteorologist to the State Board of Agriculture. In 1892 Barwick was concerned about improper weather station and instrument siting among cooperative observers that could skew weather statistics. The same issues crop up today among climate change skeptics.  

Tennent was a skilled craftsman from Philadelphia who made nautical and mathematical instruments for sea-faring ships. It had taken him 95 days to journey from Philadelphia to San Francisco via the Panama Canal — he walked the last 110 miles from Monterey.

Upon arrival, Tennent ordered weather instruments from the East and began his official observations in August 1849, and maintained daily measurements until February 1871, an impressive 22 year effort. He supplied his meteorological data to local newspapers, which were eventually published in Tennent’s Nautical Almanac.

U.S. Signal Service Station and Sacramento headquarters of the Meteorological Department of the State Agricultural Society. Note weather instruments on roof. Not surprisingly, average wind speeds dropped in many cities, including the “Windy City” Chicago, Illinois, when anemometers were removed from the tops of buildings.

Along with Sacramento and San Diego, San Francisco is among California cities with the longest weather records. Appropriate for a town where its beloved San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen once wrote, “A city where you can get a sunburn in the fog and pneumonia in the sun, freeze during baseball season and swelter during football, and read any morning that ‘it was the coldest day since last August.’”