The atmospheric rivers that lashed California with heavy flooding in January also left dizzying snow piles.
NASA satellite images show much more snow on the state’s mountains this winter than last.
And in an environment where every drop of water matters, that unusually deep snowpack is rare good news, especially for farmers. While every blizzard is different, there’s about an inch of water in a foot of snow.
Water users across the west are carefully monitoring snowfall measurement locations so they can plan for the coming summer. Here’s what you need to know:
How Much Snow Has California Got?
Many snow measurement locations in the Sierra Nevada on the California-Nevada border show double the amount of snow they usually have — and some are two or three times that.
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At Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, workers are still digging from the 16 feet of snow that fell on the base area in the first 16 days of this year, spokeswoman Lauren Burke said. The ski resort near Mammoth Lakes, California, has already received more than 30 feet of snow at its summit this winter.
“The skiing and riding has just been next level. But it’s safe to say we’re seeing a few days of blue skies in the next week,” Burke said.
- Around Lake Tahoe, some measurement sites have recorded 300 or even 400% of the median amount, compared to data going back to 1991. And January and February are typically the months with the most snow there, so more are likely to pile up. Last year, Mammoth Mountain received just 6.5 feet of snow all season—3 feet less than it’s already received this winter.
- In the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Utah, snowfall is up to 200% above average along the Continental Divide in Colorado.
The Sierra snowpack, which supplies 30% of California’s water, stands at 245% of the average for this date and 126% of its traditional April 1 peak. All three parts of the Sierra — north, central and south — are recording more than 200% of normal for the date, according to the state Department of Water Resources.
But even with all the snow and rain, most of California continues to live in some degree of drought, according to federal scientists who say it would take several years of wet conditions to reverse the ongoing drying trend.
Why does it matter?
Unlike the East Coast and Midwest, where rainfall is more consistent, California and the West rely heavily on snow to provide irrigation water for crops and to provide drinking water for growing cities like Las Vegas. About half of the water in the west comes from snowfall.
Large reservoir systems divert water from snowmelt hundreds of miles from mountain areas to farmland or cities, especially the Colorado River. Water users across the west are carefully monitoring snowfall measurement locations so they can plan for the coming summer.
Knowing how much snow will melt and feed the water supply will help growers adapt.
“Being able to do that has allowed us to keep our water district more level, forgive the pun, and endure the drought a lot better,” says almond grower Christine Gemperle, 51, who co-runs Gemperle Orchards in Turlock, California. brother.
How does climate change affect snowfall?
- More snow falling as rain: Rain is more difficult to collect in reservoirs because it comes all at once, rather than melting slowly as snow.
- Less snow on the ground means the air stays warmer: This creates a feedback loop where the warmer air causes precipitation to fall as rain instead of snow.
- Climate change changes how and where snow falls: This means that historical data is no longer as accurate when it comes to predicting water flows later in the summer.
How is snowfall measured? NASA helps.
Mountainous snowfall covers vast, sparsely populated areas. So how do authorities know exactly how much snow has fallen?
For generations, most snow measurements were made by sticking an aluminum pole in the snow and pulling out a core sample. A quick calculation of weight allowed scientists to know how much “snow water equivalent” was in the snow pack in a given area. Scientists returned to the same areas month after month, year after year to examine the snow cover and built up a picture of the snowfall in those areas.
Beginning in the 1980s, scientists developed remote snow measurement systems that could automatically weigh and report snowfall, giving us greater insight into snowfall in remote areas. There are now more than 900 remote locations in the western United States.
NASA helped develop a more accurate snow measurement system using a small aircraft equipped with LiDAR, which provides a much more comprehensive view of the entire snow pack, not just a few hundred areas.
DROUGHT:Floods, rain have ravaged California – what happened to the drought? It’s still a problem, new data says.
PHOTOS:European winter resorts struggle with no snow and warm weather
BACKGROUND:President Biden assesses storm damage, recovery efforts in drenched California