Wet or Dry? What does this winter hold?
October 18, 2001
When Frank Titus was growing up in Truckee during the ’20s and ’30s, people used to predict winter storms with “Indian lore.” One such tale said that if the new moon were tipped, the month would be wet. If it is cup-shaped the month will be dry.
“I don’t know if there’s any scientific basis, but I still look at it and a lot of times it works out that way,” he said. “Of course, other times it doesn’t.”
Titus said people used to look at the weather as going through “spells” of wet and dry and also believed that if the first snow stuck to trees, there would be more snow.
“Back then, everybody had a theory, but that was about it,” he said.
Truckee historian Guy Coates doesn’t give merit to weather prediction theories based on what he calls folklore.
“I think people just make them up,” he said.
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Some of the folklore to predict winter storms that he’s heard include watching how much food chipmunks are storing, whether squirrels are active, the amount of pine cones on the ground and how much fur huskies produce.
“I’m telling everybody, ‘I bet you five bucks it’s wetter than last year,'” said Sierra weather historian Mark McLaughlin.
McLaughlin, author of several books on historical weather events in the Sierra, doesn’t base his prediction on superstitions. Last year, he said, was Reno’s driest year on record and it’s likely to be wetter this year.
“For me, I give very little to no credibility to signs in nature with squirrels or acorns,” he said. “I don’t really believe you can make long range predictions in the winter time unless you have some key physical evidence – if you have a strong La Nina, you have a very strong El Nino – that will dictate specific patterns that are more likely to occur.”
Tracking patterns is part of what the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory does. CSSL has the longest record in the West for a snowy area, but it still doesn’t help much in predicting a season’s snowfall.
“The 131-year record is erratic,” said CSSL researcher Randall Osterhuber. “It’s not full of smooth trends.”
However, over its 130-year span of snow research, CSSL has discovered a few trends in the Sierra weather. The water year, Oct. 1-Sept. 30, has gotten gradually wetter over the years – by about .03 of an inch, Osterhuber said. Also, nighttime temperatures have gotten slightly warmer.
Osterhuber doesn’t give predictions for how the snow season will be. “No, I’m smarter than that,” he said. Instead, CSSL researchers try to predict how the water supply will look after the winter as well as study climatology, meteorology, hydrology, weather instrument design and snow physics.
“Water is California’s most precious resource,” Osterhuber said, adding that over half of the state’s water is supplied by melting snow packs.
As far as helping predict when we will see the first snowfall, CSSL data show that the average date for permanent snow on the ground is Nov. 19. The snow season, on average, lasts until May 23 when there is zero snow depth, Osterhuber said.
The last two winters were similar in their timing with a dry beginning, heavy falls in January and dry springs, Osterhuber said. He added that many people he’s talked to are predicting another dry winter based on the last few years even though the ’90s were above average for snowfall overall.
“I find that humans are short lived when it comes to weather,” he said.