Weather Window: Measuring snowfall Tahoe Truckee |

Weather Window: Measuring snowfall Tahoe Truckee

Mark McLaughlin

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. and#8212; The other day when Norm Sayler said, and#8220;This has been the worst winter ever,and#8221; it caught my attention. As the former, longtime owner and operator of Donner Ski Ranch near Donner Summit, Sayler has lived in that neighborhood since the late 1950s and knows something about snow and tough winters.

We can forgive Norm for feeling cranky. His current business is contractual snow removal for most of the homes in Serene Lakes, one of the snowiest communities in the country. And anybody who spent March in the Truckee-Tahoe region can attest to the incessant series of winter storms that pounded the area. What made this March so challenging for Sayler and his employees was the combination of wind-driven powder snow piling huge drifts over houses and driveways, and the overwhelming accumulation of snowfall. Many roads in the Serene Lakes area were nearly impassable until a rotary snowplow cleared them.

From Sayler’s perspective, there was also a lack of available open space to safely blow the snow. Of course, there was the issue of leaking propane tanks, which should provoke a conversation about how best to mitigate that problem for future severe winters. There are lessons to be learned here, but we’ll have to wait and see if these concerns are addressed, or just disappear with the melting snow.

March 2011 was indeed an exceptional month with double normal precipitation in the Golden State. According to the California Department of Water Resources, the Sierra snowpack increased by more than 50 percent that month, and statewide the snowpack was the fifth biggest in 60 years, and the most since 1995. Water runoff forecasts have been increased to 165 percent of average, compared to 95 percent last year.

Water content (precipitation) is more important than snow depth, but it’s the snow that makes winter sports magic. When powerful storms slam the mountains, everyone wants to know and#8220;how much pow?and#8221; The West is studded with hundreds of automatic precipitation gages that update water totals in real time using relay technology, but because daily snowfall measurement sites in the upper elevations are relatively rare we generally rely on regional ski resorts to tell us how much snow fell near the Sierra crest. Most professional ski patrol personnel take their work seriously, and despite adverse weather conditions they try to measure snow accumulations in a consistent and accurate manner.

It may seem simple, but measuring snowfall is a complex procedure and the National Weather Service has rules for how it’s done. At the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory near Donner Pass, new snow is measured twice a day using a plasticand#8211;covered snowboard, about 10 inches square. The depth of new snow is probed with a rule at the four corners of the board and averaged. The board is then cleaned off and positioned on the snowpack surface. For Tahoe ski resorts which track accumulations by the foot or yard, a few inches here or there make no meaningful difference, but not following the approved methodology can matter. On Jan. 11-12, 1997, Montague, New York, located just east of Lake Ontario, reported a 77-inch snowfall in 24 hours, which set a new North American record. The tally was disallowed, however, after the National Climate Extreme Committee determined the total was achieved by adding six measurements together, two more than the maximum allowed during any 24-hour period. North America’s second greatest single day snowfall total occurred Jan. 4-5, 1982, at Echo Summit near South Lake Tahoe. Silver Lake, Colo. holds first place with 76 inches on April 14-15, 1921.

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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