Want to feel like a Kirkwood local? Read this quick overview about Kirkwood’s geography and weather patterns and you’ll be on your way.
Kirkwood is located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains about 15 miles south of Lake Tahoe. This resort is destined for big snow storms for two reasons. First, the Pacific Ocean is only 150 miles to the west and this serves as the moisture source needed for big snow. Second, Kirkwood sits at a high elevation relative to the mountains to its west, so storms moving east from the Pacific Ocean have nothing to block them and their full fury is unleashed on Kirkwood.
Understanding the location, elevation and orientation of the mountain is important because big mountains create their own weather. Air is forced to rise over these masses of rock, and as the air rises it cools and moisture condenses into snow. This is called orographic lift and it’s the most important factor when forecasting powder. Kirkwood is set up perfectly to maximize the orographic lift from storms that bring a southwest, west or northwest wind.
If you’re searching for the next storm heading toward Kirkwood, look no further than a recent satellite image of the eastern Pacific Ocean. Storms can often be seen swirling over the ocean heading east toward the U.S. The best scenario for deep and light snow at Kirkwood is to have a storm move south from the northern Pacific Ocean. With an ocean origin, there will be plenty of moisture for snow. And with its roots in the north, cold air will ensure that the snow stays light and fluffy, at least at the higher elevations.
Winds from a westerly direction can dump the most snow on the highest point of the Sierras (called the “Sierra Crest”), and Kirkwood sits at this position.
When these favorable winds combine with good moisture and cold temperatures, massive snows can pile up. The most snow ever reported by Kirkwood in a single month was 277 inches in February 1986. The biggest season recorded in the last 30 years was 1982/1983 with 788 inches measured.
These are big numbers, but where do they come from?
Kirkwood measures their snow from two locations. For upper mountain reports, a snow stake at the top of Chair 6 (9,600 feet) is used. For base reports, snow is measured at the bottom of Chair 1 (7,850 feet).
Now that you know the local weather patterns at Kirkwood and how snow is measured, the only thing left to do is enjoy your powder day!
Joel Gratz is a meteorologist & the founder of OpenSnow.com.