When moist wind hits a mountain, it is forced to rise. Rising air expands due to lower pressure, and this expanding air cools, allowing the moisture to condense into snow. This process is called orographic lift and is responsible for creating more than half of the snow that falls for the resorts on larger mountains. Let’s take a look at the mountain ranges in California, how these ranges create their own weather, and where you can find the highest snow totals.
The climate of California is maritime, meaning that it is close to an ocean moisture source. This often means higher snowfall compared to states that are further from the coast, but it also means that the snow is generally heavier and thicker with the added moisture.
Forecasting snow in California is somewhat less complex than other states since there is only one major mountain range. The Sierra Nevada mountains extend nearly 400 miles from northern California to the lower elevation desert area in the south. Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in this range, and also the highest peak in California and the lower 48 states. It tops out at 14,505, just 65 feet higher than the next tallest peak in the lower 48 states, which is Mt. Elbert in Colorado.
The largest snowstorms for the Sierra Nevada mountains have their origin in the Pacific Ocean. As these storms move into California from the west, the wind direction makes a direct strike on the Sierras leading to sharply ascending air and high snowfall rates. If the Pacific storms move in from a more southerly direction, the snowfall can be deeper due to added moisture, but the snow itself will be heavier due to warmer temperatures. Storms that move in from the northern Pacific bring somewhat less moisture but make up for this with colder temperatures and lighter, fluffier powder.