Want to feel like a Snowbird local? Read this quick overview about Snowbird’s geography and weather patterns and you’ll be on your way.
Snowbird is located in Utah’s Wasatch mountains just southeast from the Great Salt Lake. These mountains present a formidable front to storms coming from the west as the terrain rises from 4,500 feet above sea level to over 10,000 feet in less than 10 miles. The Wasatch mountains are generally aligned from north to south, bounding the greater Salt Lake City area to the east. Snowbird is located in Little Cottonwood Canyon, with Big Cottonwood Canyon just to the north.
Understanding the location and orientation of mountain ranges 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.
If you’re looking at a weather map searching for the next storm heading toward Snowbird, keep your eyes out for storms that bring winds from the west and northwest. These wind directions are favorable for two reasons. First, a west or northwest wind is forced to ascend a vertical mile in a short time and this rising air helps to create snow. Second, a northwest wind can create lake effect snow from the Great Salt Lake, especially early in the season. Lake effect snow bands are hit-and-miss, but they can often line up over Little Cottonwood Canyon and bring high snowfall rates.
Other wind directions are not as favorable for Snowbird. Storms with winds from the southwest often bring better snow to the northern Wasatch mountains, and the less frequent storms with easterly winds can favor the Park City region just to the east of Snowbird.
But when favorable winds combine with good moisture and cold temperatures, massive snows can pile up. The most snow ever reported by Snowbird in a 24 hour period is 36 inches and the biggest season recorded in the last 30 years was 1983/1984 with 688 inches measured at the base. The seasonal average at the base is about 500 inches, which is a remarkable amount for a ski area that’s located well inland from an ocean which often provides the moisture necessary for big snow storms.
These are large snowfall numbers, but where do they come from? Where does Snowbird measure snow?
According to Peter Schory, the veteran winter operations director, snow is measured at the base of the mountain at an elevation of 8,100 feet. The measuring area is near the tram, and official measurements are taken at about 6 a.m. and also after the lifts close at 4 p.m.
Now that you know the local weather patterns at Snowbird 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.