As a Utah local skiing the Wasatch Mountains for the past 30 years, I can safely testify that it has been one of worst. Credit is due for a few double digit storms that have helped to provide decent coverage on upper elevations, especially Alta, which was able to open a decent amount of terrain by December. Even Park City has nailed some double digit days and has decent coverage up top. Off Piste and lower elevations at many resorts is still hurting in Utah.
Is this currently going down as the worst winter on record in the Wasatch?
If you look at the record books it’s not as bad as some others, however in a few weeks those statistics may go by the wayside if Utah does not nab a deep dump soon. There may be a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel as models are showing some light or moderate snow possible in Utah mid this week and again late week. The long term weather models are a bit more optimistic for the end of the month.
According to hydrologist Brian Mcinerney at the National Weather Service in Salt Lake, the current snow water equivalent (liquid content in the snow) in the Cottonwoods is at 49% of average, where further north towards Logan the snow water equivalent currently sits at 71% of average. Early season dumps brought more snow to Beaver Mountain (northern Utah) than the Cottonwoods, primarily in November and early December. In central and southern Utah the snow water equivalent is only 20-30% of average. Each additional day without snow will draw these percentages even lower. “You would need 80-90 inches of snow right now to approach normal according to Mcinerney.” By the end of February the catch up will likely approach well over 120 inches. The Sierra is experiencing a similar issue with storms being forced north of a blocking high pressure ridge only to slam the Cascades, BC, and then loop south over the back side of the ridge to land decent snow in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.
“It’s one of the worst winters on record for Utah” according to Mcinerney, “if not in 50 years.” 1963 and 1976 winters had terrible starts only to play catch up towards the end of the season (1976 finished at 314 inches). I looked at data from the Utah Avalanche Center which has records from the Alta Guard Station since 1944. The Winter of 76-77 had just 81 inches at the end of January compared to 148 inches at Alta this season. This season has certainly been a windfall compared to 81 inches in 1977, however, that season reaped 73 inches in February. That would have to happen towards the 3rd or 4th week of this month when there is hope for more snow. Previous to 1944, data on snowfall was collected manually by melting snow in tubes that goes back to the early 1920’s (Limited data). Automated snow tel data began in 1984, available on the Utah Avalanche Center Homepage.
Currently the weather models show some moderate snow midweek (higher elevations of Utah just nabbed 3-7 inches last weekend), followed by another storm this weekend. The weather models show a a decent chance additional systems moving into the west later this month. They don’t do a good job on predicting the track of storms that has shifted north for much of this season only to miss Utah and crush the upper elevations of the northern Rockies. This year has been plagued with deep model runs for Utah, only to see them fizzle even 24 hours before a storm. My confidence is increasing for a moderate storm for the end of the upcoming week. The weather models also show a decent chance of a welcoming pattern change by the 3rd week of February.
Below: Ensembles from the GFS beginning to break down the ridge in the west at some point around February 18-20th.
According to the National Weather Service in Salt Lake “There is less than a 10% chance of catching up” to normal this season with a ridge in place at least for the next 7-10 days.” Lets hope that some good news is on the horizon towards the 3rd week of February!
Below: February 27th 2017- Powderchaser Steve at Snowbird, Utah. 16-20 inches of blower pow- “I AM DREAMING RIGHT NOW OF A REPEAT”
According to Mcinerney, much of this may relate to a “Weakened polar jet stream due to the Polar Arctic warming at a faster rate than the Equator. This elongates the jet stream and pushes moisture north into the Hudson Bay (Alaska) and over the top of the ridge to land over the northern Rockies, Midwest and East Coast. It’s technically called a quasi stationary high amplitude atmospheric wave pattern.” Also there is reference to the North American Winter Dipole. NOAA refers to this as a warm west and colder east.
Think wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, record high temperatures and everything else mother nature has thrown at us! The Climate is changing.
Below image: Nasa Earth Observatory
THE REST OF THE WEST
Northern and central Colorado have had leftovers that have kept snow conditions respectable, especially along I-70 and north.. Keystone scored 18 inches last Tuesday! Most mountains in Colorado scored 6-12 inches on Saturday, with Utah getting in the action with 4-7 inches (Upper Cottonwoods). Southern Colorado has been skunked the hardest this season with northern New Mexico completely out of the loop. In fact, looking at snow totals at Sugar Mountain North Carolina, 46 inches of snow has fallen there this season, which is double the amount of many resorts in Northern New Mexico that regularly average 275-325 inches. Who would have thought…There is some good news as heavy snow just fell over the northern San Juans (10 plus at Telluride) and more is on the way for this week. Latest models show a decent storm for the southern San Juans from Silverton/Purgatory and especially Wolf Creek late Monday night into Tuesday. They really need to nail a dump right now!
This season has been described as a wave of moisture pushing north and looping back south saying ‘Screw you skiers in the Sierra and southern Rockies.’ Even Texas, Florida and most of the eastern seaboard saw snow this season. Another issue is unseasonably warm temperatures that have created significantly less snow on the lower elevations than the summits at many areas of the northern Rockies. I can’t recall any season by February where I have not scored at least 3 deep Hoback runs at Jackson Hole. My record at Jackson Hole is a 38 inch dump almost 15 years ago where the entire mountain remained closed (Thunder chair ran by 2PM) and I scored 1st tram (Old Red) the next day and scored a 4,000 foot run down in waist to nipple deep powder without stopping. That run still spins in my head sometimes! It’s not happening this year, at least not yet. On a good note, I have scored several good top to bottom days at Grand Targhee this season as well as some good days on the upper mountain of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. The Targhee base elevation sits over 1,000 feet higher than Jackson Hole. Montana, British Columbia, and the northern Cascades are having normal to slightly above normal seasons (high avalanche danger in BC from weak layers in December and warmer temps after nearly every single big storm they have had). Interior BC just logged several days of deep powder and it’s staying cold this week.
If there is any good news here, it is that many mountains in Utah got salvaged with a storm just prior to XMAS and again a few weeks ago bringing decent conditions to most of the upper elevations of Park City and areas north towards Powder Mountain and Snowbasin. The Cottonwoods have done better at higher elevations, especially Alta early season where they managed to open up a good amount of terrain as previously mentioned. Snowbird is on the mend! I had friends that skied Park City, Alta, and Powder Mountain that flew from Maryland a few weeks ago. They had no complaints about the snow conditions, however, they did manage to catch the storm cycle that landed them some fresh powder. For the local powder hounds, it’s a different story unless you scored the last dump on January 20th that landed almost 2 feet in the Cottonwoods and 12-15 inches elsewhere in northern Utah. Looking optimistically, we know it’s going to snow again! I remember weeks where it has snowed 100 inches in 7 days at Snowbird. On the pessimistic side, when I asked the hydrologists from NOAA in Salt Lake about the future of skiing, the response is, “by 2035-2065 we may see 50% less snow cover in the west and by 2100 we may be seeing all rain.” The only good news for me is that I won’t be around for it.
Lets hope the end of February, March, and April slam the Sierra and central Rockies. I like to think optimistically, but my gut tells me it’s a stretch. I am confident that something good might happen in Utah this week.
Image: Meteostar- Confidence is low to medium for a push of colder air and moisture into the Wasatch by February 18th. If the models hold up for another 3-4 days my confidence will be increasing. A moderate storm will be impacting Utah on Monday.