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Tahoe Nugget #226:

Beware the East Wind
March 8, 2012

Lake Tahoe is well-known for its epic snowstorms and temperate winter climate, but every so often the cold northeast wind roars in from the Great Basin bringing relatively frigid temperatures. A strong cold front blasted through the Tahoe Basin two days ago dropping half a foot of powder snow and ushering in temps near zero at the Truckee Airport.

Classic Cold Wave Graphic
Cold wave inundated Tahoe in December  2008.

Due to the moderating influence of the nearby Pacific Ocean, the Lake Tahoe-Truckee region is usually spared the worst of it when bitterly cold air invades the continental U.S., but occasionally the northeast wind slams us with Arctic-like temperatures.  

Nugget #226 Ice Coating on West  Shore
Choppy water driven by the east wind coated vegetation with ice on Tahoe's west shore on March 7, 2012.

January 1937 is the chilliest month in California and Nevada's history. In fact, two separate cold waves that month kept the region in the deep freeze and set record low temperatures for both states that still stand. One frigid air mass rolled into the Great Basin during the first week of January, which sent the mercury plummeting to minus 50 degrees at San Jacinto, Nevada, the Silver State's all-time lowest temperature

A second Arctic intrusion surged into the Far West 10 days later and reinforced the frigid air already entrenched. On January 20, observers at Boca, California, recorded the Golden State's coldest temperature ever at 45 degrees below zero.

Nugget #226 Beached boat Carnelian  Bay
The vigorous east wind often causes havoc for boats still tethered to buoys on Lake Tahoe. 

For 75 years, January 1937 has retained its crown as the coldest month in regional history, but 22 years ago a severe cold snap before Christmas 1990 rewrote of many of those benchmark temperature records.

The 1990 Arctic intrusion plunged deep into Nevada and over the Sierra. Carson City registered a minus 19 and Reno hit 13 below. The coldest air during this event settled in over the central and eastern portions of the Silver State, but residents along the eastern Sierra also shivered through the Christmas holidays. Only the bravest skiers and boarders ventured out to the slopes where rare frostbite warnings were posted — on Slide Mountain the wind chill registered a dangerous 52 degrees below zero.

Nugget #226 Family on  Truckee
Tahoe family having fun on Truckee River despite December 1990 cold wave.

Other Sierra stations reported brutally cold readings; South Lake Tahoe fell to 17 below and Truckee hit minus 28. Typical with cold and stable Arctic air masses, snow was not a problem. Echo Summit picked up most in the region with only 49 inches all month.

On Lake Tahoe, gusty winds created dangerous conditions for maritime vessels. On the afternoon of December 20, 1990, the popular sternwheeler "Tahoe Queen" had boarded all passengers and departed from its pier at South Lake Tahoe. On board were 82 people out to enjoy a festive Christmas party and dinner. The ship made its way onto the lake and salads and drinks were served. After the main course, the weather went from bad to worse. When Captain Clark observed wind gusts of 70 mph and swells six feet high, he knew it was time to head for shelter.

Nugget #226 Ice coated trees
Freezing temperatures combined with wave action create beauty in Tahoe City. 

The powerful waves tossed the Tahoe Queen around like a champagne cork. Cash registers crashed to the floor, pipes broke and glass shattered. Waiters struggled to secure a piano that was rolling back and forth. Seasick passengers crowded the bathrooms while the rest hung on as best they could. Their Tahoe Christmas pleasure cruise had turned into the Poseidon Adventure. Fortunately, Clark was able to reach a patch of sandy beach on Tahoe's east shore and everyone was safely rescued by the Tahoe Douglas Fire Department.

Nugget #226 Tahoe Steam
Sunrise in Carnelian Bay shows steam rising from the relatively warm surface water of Lake Tahoe.

This winter is running dry, but two months after the deep freeze of December 1990, the region was rewarded with about 20 feet of snow in a barrage of storms known as the "Miracle March." There is still a bit of hope left that this winter will turn wet before it ends.

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