Nevada: A State of Extremes

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun
Photo by Mark McLaughlin

The media generally focuses on the high country of the Sierra for winter storm headlines and other severe weather phenomena, but our neighbors to the east experience weather extremes nearly as dramatic.

Nevada is much more than mining, gaming, golfing and vast desert country. It is a region of climatic extremes, a land where surface temperatures have soared to a sizzling 125º (June 1994) or plunged to an Arctic-like 50º below zero (January 1937). Nevada is characterized by isolated, long, narrow, roughly parallel mountain ranges and broad, intervening, nearly flat valleys and basins.

The climate of the Silver State is characterized as semi-arid to arid with precipitation and temperature varying widely between the northern and southern regions of the state, as well as between the valley floors and mountain tops. Temperatures can fall below minus 40º during winter in the northeastern region, and rise to more than 120º during summer in the south. Annual precipitation ranges from barely four inches in southern Nevada to more than 40 inches (and more than 300 inches of snowfall) in the Carson Range portion of the Sierra Nevada.

The rugged Silver State has more named mountain ranges than any other state except Alaska and ranks third in seismic activity behind Alaska and California. It is also the most parched in the nation with an average of only nine inches of water a year. Nevada may be dry and dusty today, but more than 200 million years ago the region was actually the floor of an ancient equatorial sea and home to prehistoric marine life.

Few places in the world boast seasonal temperature swings of 175º Fahrenheit, but Nevada also experiences extreme short-term temperature changes. The U.S. record for a temperature change caused only by daily local cooling and heating was set on Sept. 21, 1954 at Deeth in Elko County. No warm front surged over Deeth that day, but the thermometer soared from a frigid 12 degrees in the morning to a toasty 87 degrees that afternoon, a 75 degree spread.

These extreme diurnal temperature swings occur when the atmosphere is very dry with low humidity, the air at night is calm and the ground bone dry. More recently a relatively rare meteorological event occurred at Wells, Nev., on Oct. 18, 2002, when both the record maximum and minimum temperatures were exceeded on the same day. The new record low of 12 degrees for Oct. 18 beat the 14 degrees mark set in 1976. The temperature then shot up 69 degrees to 81, breaking the old record of 78 set in 1974.

The Nevada we know today has existed for only the last few seconds of the total geologic clock of time. As recently as 10,000 years ago the region was considerably wetter than now and much of the land was covered with ancient lakes and expansive, lush grasslands. As the climate became warmer and drier, entire animal species were wiped out and the abundant vegetation withered.

The mountains of Nevada may not get the headlines, but snowfall records in the Silver State are worth bragging about. The number one winter for big snow in Nevada was 1969, when Daggett Pass picked up copious amounts of snow. The pass, at an elevation of 7,339 located south of Lake Tahoe, pulled in almost 15 feet of snow during the month of Feb. 1969, and totaled more than 34 feet for the year. Not bad for the driest state.

” Weather Historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning writer and photographer. He can be reached at

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