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Looking for the best pow days? Fall snow might be your indicator

Mark Stone

As colder weather starts to set in for some of the Mountain West region, skiers and snowboarders are on the hunt to see what areas will get snow first. New research is showing that fall snowfall can be a good predictor of what the rest of the season will look like.

At the University of Washington, researchers looked at historical precipitation and temperature data from 2001 to 2022. They measured it with “snow pillows,” which acts a lot like a bathroom scale. It's a metal weight filled with antifreeze that compresses and measures the weight of the snow.

Mark Stone

They looked at how much snow was still on the ground on January 1 to understand what stuck from October, November and December. The researchers thencompared that level to the max amount of snow that fell during the entire season.

Researchers found heavy fall snow levels in October through December were good indicators of heavier snow seasons for January through March, particularly in Northeast Utah, Southwest Wyoming, and Northern Colorado. The research, which was published in Geophysical Research Letters last month, also found that the median November temperature was the best predictor of December snowfall.

“There's not a lot of variability from year to year (there),” said Jessica Lundquist, a professor at the University of Washington who helped write the paper. “A lot of the high elevations in the Rockies are actually pretty dependable (with fall snowfall and sticking).”

The amount of snow in the Western United States is based on the storms that come through the jet stream early in the fall in the North and then migrate South through the season, Lundquist said.

“The large-scale atmospheric conditions that are set up to bring storms to a particular area tend to be long lasting,” Lundquist said. “If they're (the storms are) set up in the fall, they're also going to be set up in January, February, March.”

This data isn’t just an indicator of good skiing or snowboarding spots. Lundquist said it’s also important for water managers to evaluate stored water available for the season.

“This (area) is the headwaters of the Colorado (River), and people are making decisions in the fall and early on whether to plant, whether to hire people to harvest, how much water is coming in,” she said. “A lot of it goes down to junior water users who, you know, may or may not get their water allocation in a given year. The more advance notice they have, the more money they can save.”

They couldn’t make good predictions for New Mexico and Nevada because of variations in their weather patterns.

“They're (the states are) pretty warm locations and so it's often not cold enough for any snow that falls to stick,” Lundquist said. “They (will) get the most of their moisture after the first of January. And so a lot can happen in the spring to change those Southern states.”

Lundquist added that warmer temperatures induced by climate change might affect these results in the future, that more areas will be like these Southern states that cannot keep snowpack on the ground in the fall.

“A lot of areas could be more extreme, that more snow in the fall leads to more snow in the winter, less snow in the fall leaves less snow sticking in the winter, which increases our inter-annual variability, which is hard to manage for,” she said.

To watch the snow pillows track measurements in real time and how they compare to the average snowfall for that area, visit the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service National Water and Climate Center website.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Emma VandenEinde