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Tahoe Nugget #160

Record Setting Winter in 1969
January 6, 2009

Santa was good to Tahoe this Christmas. In mid-December there were few ski resorts open due to a lack of snow, but then the Pacific storm door blew open and powerful cold fronts pounded the Sierra. In the second half of December, Squaw picked up 123 inches of snow; Alpine Meadows and Mammoth Mountain each reported about 13 feet. Kirkwood Mountain Resort just south of Lake Tahoe is now reporting a base nearly 9 feet deep.

Despite good news from the resorts, officials from California and Nevada are worried. You can sum it up with one word, water. On December 30, snow surveyors conducting the first survey of the season found the snowpack's water content 83 percent of normal. Lake Tahoe is so low it is feeding very little water into the Truckee River. It's critical that this winter be wetter than normal to help recharge the watershed because the last two years have been drier than average.

January is historically the wettest month with more than 9 inches of precipitation expected near Donner Pass (18 percent of the yearly total). Storms during January normally produce 81 inches of snow, fully one fifth of all the snow expected for the season.

There is still plenty of winter left, but a developing pattern change in the Pacific Ocean is causing some concern. Sea surface temperatures in the equatorial regions are cooling, indicative of a La Nina event which often diverts the jet stream north into Canada, bringing dry conditions to California. The cooler sea surface temperatures indicate possible La Nina development, but the minimum threshold of surface temperature deviation over time has not yet been met. Despite what you might read in the California media, it's too soon to start predicting a dry winter based on cooling ocean water temperatures. See photo #2.

It's true that Tahoe is slightly off pace for precipitation to date, but occasionally big winters get off to a slow start. Forty years ago, the record setting winter of 1968-69 also opened up late. With only two to three feet of snow at the resorts by mid-December, there was just enough for skiers to whoop it up, but then similar to this year heavy snow and wind gusts in excess of 100 mph tore into the region around Christmas. Snowfall was plentiful, but not extreme. Squaw Valley picked up a total of 105 inches during December 1968.

The Sierra Storm King worked more magic throughout January and February. Snowfall totals soared to nearly 300 percent of normal as a powerful jet stream drove storm after storm into the mountains. A juicy impulse that hit on Jan. 13 hammered Soda Springs with 45 inches; ten days later more than 70 inches fell in 48 hours. That second system piled 75 inches of fresh snow on the Mount Rose Ski Resort, setting Nevada's all-time single-storm record. At Donner Pass, snow fell continuously for eleven days which added another 13.5 feet to the pack.

By the end of January ski areas were reporting impressive snow depths. Squaw Valley was struggling with 23 feet; Mount Rose had 25 feet, while the Boreal Ridge ski area near Donner Pass reported that it was buried under massive drifts 18 to 40 feet deep.

The active weather pattern set several Nevada snowfall records that still stand. On Valentine's Day, the Silver State's 24-hour snowfall record was broken when three feet buried Daggett Pass near the Kingsbury Grade, east of Lake Tahoe. A total of 139 inches of snow fell on Daggett Pass during Feb. 1969, and the maximum snow depth there reached 14.5 feet, both new state records.

In late February, two snow surveyors near Big Whitney Meadow in the Southern Sierra measured 12 feet of new snow in just 48 hours! Persistent storms and huge snow drifts as high as 40 feet closed the Mt. Rose road (Route 431) for 37 days. The season total at Mt. Rose of more than 59 inches of precipitation (rain and melted snow combined) set a new record for Nevada's wettest calendar year.

In California, the winter snowpack topped out near 100 inches deep in Tahoe City, but ski areas on Donner Summit boasted depths more than twice that. In February, the percentage of mean monthly snowfall in the Central Sierra reached nearly 1,000 percent of normal.

On April 1, Squaw Valley ski resort reported about 30 feet of snow on the upper mountain and declared they would keep their lifts running until July 7.The big storms of 1968-69 set plenty of weather records in Nevada and dumped 601 inches of snow at the Central Sierra Snow Lab near Donner Pass. The amazing thing was that nearly all of the snow came after New Year's Day.

Tahoe Nuggets are now archived at www.thestormking.com

Photo #1: Still digging out from 2008 Christmas storm at Squaw Valley.
Photo #2: Snow surveyors weighing snow core to measure water content in 1946.
Photo #3: Alarmist media or just selling newspapers?
Photo #4: Storm track influences from La Nina and El Nino.
Photo #5: Roof shoveling at Squaw Valley in March 1969. 
Photo #6: Nevada State Journal headline on March 2, 1969.
Photo #7: Record snowpack in April 1969 at South Lake Tahoe.

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