Weather Window: An exceptional Tahoe winter |

Weather Window: An exceptional Tahoe winter

Mark McLaughlin/submitted to

TAHOE/TRUCKEE and#8212; The word in the street and media is the Lake Tahoe region is experiencing a record winter. But setting records is a tricky business in a land of microclimates and assorted record keeping. Virtually all of our major regional resorts located near the Sierra crest are off the charts this year with seasonal snowfall totals near or exceeding 700 inches, more than 58 feet. No doubt an exceptional amount of snow considering April just began. The tallies are all the more impressive since Tahoe was virtually bone dry for six weeks during the typically wettest part of the winter season of January and the first half of February.

However, for the most dependable and long-lived comparisons of snow and precipitation from year to year, I always rely on the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory (CSSL) at elevation 6,900 feet near Donner Pass. The snow lab doesn’t receive the most snow in the region (partly because of its relatively lower elevation compared to the ski area’s upper mountain measuring sites), but its snowfall record goes back to 1878, making it the longest data set in the Sierra Nevada.

Some people compare snowfall totals from the Sugar Bowl, Alpine Meadows, or Kirkwood ski resorts to the historic winters measured near the CSSL’s Norden location, but as I have told many people during the past few weeks, that is like comparing apples and oranges. Snowfall measurements from locations at or greater than 8,000 feet will always exceed accumulations taken at or below 7,000 feet. In fact, the Sierra’s all time greatest seasonal snowfall of 883 inches (73.5 feet) was measured at Tamarack, Calif., in 1907. The Tamarack station, at 8,000 feet in Alpine County, was active for a relatively short period of time. Not only was the seasonal snowfall record set there, but California’s greatest snow depth of 37.6 feet was also measured there in March 1911. The United States’ greatest monthly snowfall record of 32.5 feet occurred there during January 1911. The higher elevation brings less rain and drier snow with more loft, which increases the measured totals. Elevation does not, however, necessarily ensure more precipitation, which includes the combination of rainfall and snow melted for its water content.

To put the 2011 season in perspective, as of March 28, the CSSL had received 567 inches of snow (47.3 feet), which ranks it as the 16th snowiest winter of record, just behind 1936, but ahead of 1911. In case you’re wondering, the top five snowiest winters at Norden are (in order) 1938, 1952, 1880, 1890 and 1895. With the month of April still to go, it’s likely this year will advance in the top 20 rankings in the weeks ahead.

The deep snowpack at lake level this March is the greatest since the winter of 1995, which ranks 12th on the all time snowfall list at Norden. However, 1995 ranks second on the all-time wettest winter list, a year that pulled in 9 feet of precipitation. That winter’s snowmelt bumped up Tahoe more than 5.5 feet in one season, the second greatest rise on record.

Record snowfall is what skiers and snowboarders dream of, but it’s the water content in that snow that fills our rivers, lakes and reservoirs. To that end, there is currently 6 feet of water equivalent in the CSSL snowpack and Governor Jerry Brown has officially declared the California drought over. For those wondering how much Lake Tahoe’s water level will rise this summer, pay attention to the April snow survey.

and#8212; Tahoe weather historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You can reach him at

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