If you know how to time the weather, there have been plenty of good powder days across the western U.S. this winter. However, the total amount of snow is still well below average for many popular areas, and now it’s time to put it all in perspective.
To achieve a fair comparison between this season and past seasons, we’re going to use data from SNOTEL sites. These are remote backcountry weather stations scattered throughout 13 western states. In total, there are 750 of these stations, with some collecting data for more than 40 years. I like to use snow information from these stations because the data is consistent and there’s no possibility of bias (while I think ski areas are pretty honest in their snow reporting, I know some people disagree). One thing to keep in mind is that these stations are very accurate when measuring the liquid equivalent of the snow on the ground, meaning the depth of water that you’d get if you melted the snow. Actual snow depth would be the easiest data to use, but measurements of snow depth by automated weather stations can be very inaccurate.
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Looking across the west, many areas in Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are between 90 and 100 percent of average snowfall as of the last day of January. However, many popular resorts in central Colorado and Utah’s Wasatch are sitting at around 75 percent of average. And in Tahoe, despite a recent storm cycle that dropped three to five feet of snow, they only have about 50 percent of their average snow for this time of year.
Percentage of average snowfall during the season, as of Jan. 31, 2012.
Things really get interesting when we zoom in to a few specific locations. First, in Schweitzer, Idaho (in the northern panhandle), snowfall is above average and above where we were this time last season.
Schweitzer Mountain Resort-- The lines compare an average year (light blue), last season (green) and this season (dark blue). The higher the lines are on the graph, the more snow is on the ground.
Looking over to central Colorado near Summit County, the story isn’t so rosy. While most terrain is open thanks to some recent big storms, the current snow at the end of January is what we would expect toward the end of December. So in essence, we’re a month behind.
Copper Mountain-- The lines compare an average year (light blue), last season (green) and this season (dark blue). The higher the lines are on the graph, the more snow is on the ground.
Snowbird in Utah shows a similar predicament, but the storm cycle at the end of January helped them get closer to where they should be at this time of year. While they’re only at about 45 percent of last season’s record-breaking snowfall, they made up about half of their deficit in only a few days.
Snowbird Ski Resort-- The lines compare an average year (light blue), last season (green) and this season (dark blue). The higher the lines are on the graph, the more snow is on the ground.
And lastly in Tahoe, it looks like a typical boom/bust cycle. This area usually sees very large storms followed by periods of dry conditions. Unfortunately, the snow-less days numbered over two months, but the storm cycle in late January added a ton of new snow and helped the region move closer to normal. Going into February, the amount of snow on the ground is more representative of mid-December than the month of the groundhog.
Heavenly Mountain Resort-- The lines compare an average year (light blue), last season (green) and this season (dark blue). The higher the lines are on the graph, the more snow is on the ground.
But it’s time to think positive, so here’s my final thought. In some areas of the west, there were three other low-snow seasons during the last 30 years comparable to this season. In one of those two cases, snowfall in the latter half of the winter helped to nudge the overall numbers closer to average for the entire season. This isn’t a forecast that the rest of the year will be filled with powder, but know that there’s at least a chance we could make up some ground before spring returns in full force.
Meteorologist Joel Gratz is the creator of opensnow.com and is based in Boulder, Colo.
Thanks to Dr. Andrew Slater from the National Snow and Ice Data Center for aiding in the data analysis.