Tahoe’s Winter Weather: Storms, temperatures and snowpack | SierraSun.com

Tahoe’s Winter Weather: Storms, temperatures and snowpack

Mark McLaughlin

Photo courtesy Mark McLaughlin

December is half gone and we’re still waiting for snow. As I write this the National Weather Service has predicted a significant pattern change in the next few days with a strong cold front followed by an extended period of light to moderate snowfall. If this forecast verifies and the ski areas receive a healthy dose of snow, it will have arrived just in time.

Tahoe resorts, businesses and their employees are feeling the combined effects from a lack of early season snow and a national economic crisis which has crushed consumer spending. It is a perfect storm of bad news that should be partially ameliorated by this week’s snow and the cold weather, which will facilitate robust snowmaking on the slopes.

Snow is important, but water is desperately needed too. Lake Tahoe is currently storing only three percent of its total reservoir capacity. The flow entering the Truckee River from the lake had dropped to just a trickle. Without a significant precipitation event Lake Tahoe will drop to its natural rim and stop feeding the Truckee River. This first storm of the 2009 winter season is bringing snow. Unfortunately it appears water content will be minimal.

December is an important month when it comes to building up the snowpack and replenishing regional watersheds. The Central Sierra Snow Lab averages more than 8 inches of precipitation (rain and melted snow) during December (16 percent of the average annual total) and nearly 70 inches of snow, which is about 17 percent of a season’s total.

We have received relatively little in the way of precipitation. There is still time to make up this deficit, but when it comes to marketing winter sports, timing is everything.

All winter resorts and many local businesses rely heavily on the busy holiday season for a big chunk of winter earnings. Good snow conditions can make a huge difference in the amount of money that flows into local coffers.

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For the past six weeks a stubborn ridge of high pressure in the eastern Pacific has held storms at bay and generated dry and mild conditions in the Sierra. Strong inversions have made temperatures topsy-turvy, with morning temperatures often lower in Reno and Sacramento than on high elevation mountain slopes. It’s tough for resorts to make snow in those conditions.

The weekend cold front opened the door to winter conditions. Due to the moderating influence of the nearby Pacific Ocean, the Lake Tahoe-Truckee region is often spared when bitterly cold air invades the continental U.S., but weather-wise residents know occasionally cold fronts out of the north can slam us with Arctic-like temperatures.

Old timers may remember January 1937, the chilliest month in California and Nevada’s history. In fact, two separate cold waves kept the region in the deep freeze and set record low temperatures for both states that still stand. One frigid air mass rolled into the Great Basin during the first week of January, which sent the mercury plummeting to minus 50 degrees at San Jacinto, Nev., the Silver State’s all-time lowest temperature. (The previous record of 45 below ” set on Dec. 19, 1924 ” also occurred at San Jacinto, a mile-high basin located near the Idaho border.)

A second Arctic intrusion surged into the Far West 10 days later and reinforced the frigid air. On Jan. 20, observers at Boca, Calif., recorded the Golden State’s coldest temperature ever at 45 below zero.

On Jan. 8, 1937, downtown Reno plunged to minus 16 and in Carson City the thermometer slid to 27 below. Far to the south in Las Vegas, gamblers were chilled to the bone when the thermometer dropped to 10 degrees. Residents struggled with broken water pipes, dead batteries and frozen radiators in their automobiles. They also had to deal with plenty of snow. More than 26 inches fell in Reno, 32 inches in Carson City, and 80 inches at Marlette Lake. Hundreds of travelers were stranded by the deadly combination of cold temperatures and drifting snow.

The 1990 Arctic intrusion plunged deep into Nevada; Boulder City dropped to nine above zero, Carson City registered a minus 19 and Reno hit 13 below. Only the bravest skiers and boarders ventured out to the slopes where rare frostbite warnings were posted for wind chills more than 50 degrees below zero. Sierra stations reported brutally cold readings; South Lake Tahoe fell to 17 below; Markleeville 25 below; and Truckee hit minus 28.

At Lake Tahoe, a gusty wind created dangerous conditions for maritime vessels plying the lake’s frigid waters. On the afternoon of Dec. 20, 1990, the popular sternwheeler “Tahoe Queen” had boarded all 82 passengers and departed from its pier at South Lake Tahoe for a festive Christmas party and dinner. Skies were mostly clear but the southwest wind was howling. Veteran skipper Dave Clark had confidence in his ship and the white-capped waves did not appear too dangerous.

After the main course, the weather went from bad to worse. When Captain Clark observed wind gusts of 70 mph and swells six feet high, he knew it was time to head for shelter. The experienced Clark realized it was too dangerous to try for the Queen’s usual docking facility, so he steered the ship toward Nevada Beach, a distant cove several miles away.

The powerful waves tossed the Tahoe Queen around like a champagne cork. Cash registers crashed to the floor, pipes broke and glass shattered. Waiters struggled to secure a piano that was rolling back and forth. Seasick passengers crowded the bathrooms. Their Tahoe Christmas pleasure cruise had turned into the Poseidon Adventure. Despite the shrieking gale, Clark held his crew together. Their confidence helped calm passengers who were sick and near panic. Clark brought the ship closer to shore, where giant waves boomed as they crashed into massive boulders. While Clark desperately searched for a patch of sandy beach on which to safely land, the ship hit a private pier, which damaged the vessel’s 25-foot-long gangway.

Clark contacted the fire department by radio. Emergency personnel raced to the scene where they used an extension ladder to evacuate all passengers and crew from the ship. Passengers had to walk 30 feet across the broken gangplank and crawl over a slippery fire ladder to reach shore, but everyone escaped safely. “Capt. Clark did a remarkable job,” said Battalion Chief Tim Smith of the Tahoe Douglas Fire Department. “A couple of hundred yards north of where they were and they would have been pushed in on rocks. It’s anybody’s guess what would have happened then.”

This winter is off to a slow start, but two months after the deep freeze of December 1990, the region was rewarded with about 20 feet of snow in a barrage of storms known as the “Miracle March.” Hopefully this year we won’t have to wait as long for snowstorms to bless us with their white gold.

” Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at mark@thestormking.com