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Tahoe Nugget #203:

2011: An Exceptional Tahoe Winter
March 29, 2011

The word in the street and media is that 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 that it isn't even April yet. 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.

Nugget #203 Snow Berm Carnelian  Bay
Rotary snowplow cleaning up snow on streets in Carnelian Bay, a North Lake Tahoe "banana belt" neighborhood.

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, but its snowfall record dates 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 over the past few weeks, that is like comparing apples and oranges.

Nugget #203 Union Pacific Clearing  Tracks
Railroad snowplows broke down during epic March storms, forcing crews to use bulldozers and other equipment to clear tracks.

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, California, in 1907. The Tamarack station was active for a relatively short period of time, but not only was the seasonal snowfall record set there, but California's greatest snow depth of 37.6 feet was measured there in March 1911. The United States' greatest monthly snowfall record of 32.5 feet occurred there during January 1911.

Nugget #203 House with Hole Donner  Pass Rd
Residents in Donner Pass Road house use this hole in the snowbank.

The higher elevation ensures less rain and drier snow with more loft, which increases the measured totals. Elevation does not, however, necessarily bring more precipitation, which includes the combination of rainfall and snow melted for its water content.

Nugget #203 Soda Springs  Lodge
Soda Springs Hotel nearly buried by March storms.

To put the 2011 season in perspective, as of March 28, the CSSL had received 567 inches of snow so far (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 1938, 1952, 1880, 1890, and 1895. With the month of April still to go, it's likely that this year will advance in the top 20 rankings in the weeks ahead.

Nugget #203 Tubing at Soda  Springs
Snow tubers stand on a moving track to get to the launch site before sliding back down the mountain.

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.

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