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.