Who gets more snow: California or Colorado? | SierraSun.com

Who gets more snow: California or Colorado?

Kara Fox
Sierra Sun
Lauren Shearer/Sierra Sun graphic

The age-old debate of the best state in which to ski continues, with the crux of the argument revolving around who gets the most snow.

A long-held belief has been that the snow gods are fickle and in any given year will favor either California or Colorado, but in no year will the two states receive snowfall with any semblance of equity. One must choose wisely when planning the next ski vacation.

“California has a ski industry and Colorado has a ski industry and they both survive,” said Tahoe weather historian Mark McLaughlin. “That shows the theory doesn’t work.”

However, snowfall data compiled by the National Weather Service shows that snow has fallen in greater proportions in either Tahoe or Vail consistently, and that indeed, snow does not cover the Rockies and the Sierra with similar depths within the same year.

In the winter season of 2002/2003, Vail accumulated 237 inches, while Tahoe City received only 192 inches. In 2004/2005, Tahoe City received 274 inches, while Vail floundered with 143 inches.

When the data is viewed month by month, it shows that Tahoe City received 95 inches in December of 2002, while Vail only received 29 inches that month.

But tracking snowfall data is tricky, says Jim Ashby, a climatologist with the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno.

“It is the hardest of all the elements to measure,” Ashby said. “It’s all relative.”

According to the Weather Service data, a significant decrease in snowfall has been occurring since 1997, but Ashby said that doesn’t necessarily mean there was less snow. Weather stations could have been moved or volunteers who man the stations could have changed, Ashby said.

There is also no official data for ski areas, according to Ashby.

“If a winter was huge in Tahoe City, it would be huge at the ski resorts,” Ashby said.

Weather stations are set up in various places throughout the West, but data is inconsistent. Ashby said snowfall statistics from Tahoe City are “very good,” with data dating back to 1931. But Vail only has statistics dating from 1984.

McLaughlin said that snowfall data is scarce because “people don’t care about snow unless it affects transportation or people.” However, snowpack data, where the water content of snow is measured, is more common, he said.

“Snow is just not important,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said Tahoe locals should not be worried about the lack of snow so far this season because the past couple of winters have been wet. So the debate of where to ski will likely continue on.

“If this turns out to be a drier-than-usual year, then this was the year to have it,” McLaughlin said. “The people coming out are still enjoying the skiing.”

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