Tahoe Snowstorms



Winter 2013 has come out of the gate fast and furious and snow sports enthusiasts are loving the abundant fresh powder during this holiday period. Tahoe-Truckee resorts and businesses are reaping the economic benefits derived from a solid early season snowpack that draws visitors. It’s a great start to a new year.

Heavy snowfall during the Christmas holidays made road travel challenging, but the high quality powder made for epic skiing and riding at Tahoe resorts.

Remember two years ago when the Northern Sierra was hammered by the epic winter of 2011, the ninth snowiest since 1879 on Donner Pass?  (2011 was also the 7th wettest winter in a century at Tahoe City.) Seasons like that don’t come around very often. Or do they? Don’t look now, but this winter is already giving 2011 a run for its money.

As of New Year’s Day 2013, total aggregate precipitation across the Northern Sierra is running neck and neck with a near identical booster-rocket graph trajectory exhibited in the final months of 2010.

Remarkably, by January 1 both 2011 and 2013 winters had streaked ahead of 1983 in precipitation, the wettest year of record in the 8 Station Northern Sierra Index, established in 1922.

It seems logical to think that one significant difference between winter 2011 and this year, however, would be 2012’s early December deluge of higher elevation rainfall that nearly caused a major flood event on the Truckee River near Truckee and Reno.

The lack of snow and heavy rain demoralized skiers and some resort operators, but when you compare snowfall tallies for 2011 and 2013 up to New Year’s Day, you might be surprised.

Early December rainstorms left the base of KT22 chairlift in poor condition. Today the snowpack there is a solid 4 feet deep. 

So far this season, at the 8,200-foot-level of Squaw Valley, they have received nearly 21 feet of snow. By the same date in 2011, they had picked up a bit more than 24 feet.

How about at the bottom of the mountain where conditions were so bleak after that post Thanksgiving rain event? This year so far—12.4 feet of snow measured at Squaw Valley’s 6,200 foot level. By the same date in 2011?  — 13.6 feet. Let’s face it. We’re on a roll.

Last December the Tahoe Basin got skunked. This December we got hammered! Special thanks to the crew at the NWS office in Reno for the great graphics they produce.

Currently Northern California is under the protection of a strong high pressure system that should be around for a while. Sunny skies, calm winds and crisp temperatures are the rule in this weather pattern. Last winter persistent high pressure circulation remained locked over the eastern Pacific Ocean keeping Tahoe dry for a record 56 consecutive mid-winter days.

The 2012 prolonged dry spell was a rare event, but a normal Tahoe winter does experience extended periods of storm free days. These storm breaks usually come in December or January and average about 19 days in duration.

Wind-free high pressure regimes generate atmospheric inversions where cold, dense air settles into basins and valley bottoms for days on end. Not only do they suppress daytime temperatures, but they also trap particulate pollution in the lower levels of the atmosphere that creates bad air quality.

Atmospheric inversion envelopes Reno, Nevada, in cold, poor quality air. Residents there will have to wait for the next storm or a wind event to scour out the valley.

During these inversion conditions the ski slopes around Lake Tahoe are significantly warmer than the lower elevations. Skiing and riding at Tahoe doesn’t get much better than this —a healthy snowpack from 5 to 12.5 feet deep topped by packed powder surface conditions.

Did I mention the glorious sunshine showing off the groomed corduroy and chalky steep pitches? Tahoe is Game On!

Squaw Valley parking lot packed on New Year’s Eve. The resort is so big, however, that after looking up at the slopes my wife asked me “where are all the skiers?” Due to more than 30 hi-speed lifts and expansive terrain, the mountain can handle thousands of guests and not feel crowded.

Seen in Squaw Valley parking lot. No doubt where they ski!