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Yale 62

“Snowmageddon” or Winter 2022-23 in California’s Sierra Nevada

By Fred Ilfeld

[Ed. Note: Fred’s essay posted here was written on May 7, 2023.]

My reaction on leaving my mountain home in Olympic Valley in late March was altogether new to me. I felt a strong sense of relief, which I had never experienced before when leaving home. My body just relaxed physically. Until then I had no idea I was so continuously tense. Normally, I rejoice in winter up here with its small, cohesive and caring communities and the unending beauty and opportunities for skiing at multiple resorts around Tahoe. But this year has been different. On heading to my other home on the northern California coast I felt free from strain, realizing I wouldn’t have to constantly fear slipping on black ice, with the least consequence being a bad bruise, and a worse consequence a concussion or broken ribs, each of which I’ve experienced. I wouldn’t be worried about an unpredictable dropping of the cornice of 8 feet of snow overhanging from the roof above me while I dart quickly toward my front door after going out. I wouldn’t have to drive through feet, not inches, of snow, getting stuck, blocking traffic, and then digging out. Or, an even greater fear on the road, I wouldn’t be tense while driving, worried that I or an oncoming vehicle would slide into one another while going down a slippery road. Since we stored up on food, I found bearable the many days locked in my home by the impassable roads, but still upsetting to be so confined. Our propane ran out twice, leaving us with no heat, as the propane truck was unable to deliver propane to our home. The heavy snow cut off our electricity twice for several days each time, again leaving no heat and no light, nor internet. Even with the pleasure of skiing, I wore a “beeper,” an avalanche beacon, after storms so that rescuers might find my body should there be an avalanche. Imagine thinking about that every time you venture out on the slopes. There was a constant background of tension, even during pleasurable times.

By going to the coast I wouldn’t miss the unending hours of shoveling snow, creating a pathway to the propane tank or uncovering steps or gaining access to my bear-proof garbage shed. It’s not that I don’t like shoveling. I do in fact enjoy that and other physical exertion, even at age 82. But this winter it’s been shoveling feet, not inches, roughly every other day nonstop from December through April and still counting (today, May 7th, four more inches dropped on the mountain). I called a younger man in for help with the shoveling. Even when I was safely inside my home I unconsciously was tense about my roof caving in from the 10 feet of snow on top, as had happened at my pharmacy and my market in the nearby town of Truckee. And don’t even ask about clearing the driveway to the road. How my snowplow service managed to clear and store the 33 feet of snow we’ve received at my house fills me with thankfulness and wonderment.

None of these dangers and their subsequent tensions are new to me. Sierra Nevada, translated from the Spanish, means “snowy mountains.” Big storms are expected during our winters, and those of us who live here consider large amounts of snow a fact of life. But always before there had been breaks after a one- or two-day big dump. Yes, we feel the tensions from the various dangers of snowfall that I’ve just mentioned. In fact these storms lead to excitement about better skiing, and feelings of challenge and accomplishment from clearing a pathway, successfully taking a walk through the snow and beautiful surrounds, and driving without incident to one’s destination. But 10 “atmospheric rivers” this winter, one a few days after the one before, have posed months of constant challenge to us, both logistically in clearing the driveways and roads and in storing the snow, in navigating by car, and mentally, as I am noting.

Fred Ilfeld

Where are we talking about? And how much snow has fallen? California stretches over 1,000 miles north to south along the Pacific coast. It’s weather and topography vary enormously with rain forests in the north, rolling hills with vineyards through much of the State, vast agricultural land in the Central Valley (producing 25% of our nation’s fruits, nuts, and other products), and inland deserts in the south. Along most of the eastern edge of the state, about roughly 130 miles inland to the east from the coast runs the north-south mountain range named Sierra Nevada. It has the highest mountain in the continental US (Mt. Whitney- 14,496 ft) and on the eastern flank of this range, the lowest elevation in the US (Death Valley- 282 ft below sea level). This year’s record setting storms affected mostly all the State, especially the central portion. Rain amounts have hit record levels, and flooding has been widespread. Much of California has moderate temperatures year-round, with snowfall only occurring at higher elevations. Where I live, Olympic Valley, only five miles north of renowned Lake Tahoe, is at 6,200 feet elevation with 9,000 foot peaks around us. Our ski area, formerly named “Squaw Valley USA”, is famed for being the site for the Winter Olympics in 1960. Last year, in respect for our Native American population, our ski resort was renamed: “Palisades Tahoe.” This year to date, at 8,000 feet, not far from its upper elevation of 8,700 ft, Palisades Tahoe has recorded sixty feet of snowfall. Since World War II when measurements began, no season tops this one in terms of amount of snowfall. At this moment, the 7th of May, the snow depth on the upper ski mountain is slightly under 17 feet. Mid-mountain is slightly under 11 feet. And at the bottom, just 3½ feet, plenty to ski on, top to bottom. Palisades Tahoe has been and will be hosting Alpine skiing through July 4th – – that’s nine months of solid skiing, from November to July. Such an uninterrupted ski season has never happened before. There will still be plenty of snow after July 4th, but commercially it makes no sense to keep the ski lifts running after that date.

It’s worth noting that higher ski resorts in the Sierra Nevada have had larger amounts of snow. Mammoth Mountain in the central Sierra has recorded over 59 feet at its base of 8,000 feet and nearly 75 feet of snow at its summit of 11,000 feet. At the height of the season close to 40 feet was dwarfing buildings and challenging basic life activities in the town of Mammoth Lakes. At its peak our Tahoe area was dealing with about 20 foot depths. Such a comparison helps to sooth angst and agony. Someone else has it worse!

Don’t get me wrong. The unrelenting snowfall brought pleasures. I was able to enjoy the view out of my downhill windows at the mesmerizing view of Hidden Lake framed by the celebrated and challenging ski mountain, KT-22. This was a luxury, as many of my neighbors lived on flatter ground and had their bottom floor windows blocked in by the snow for four months straight, in contrast to my perch on a hillside, which allows a vista downhill and across the Valley. Other pleasures were brought by the repeated heavy snowfalls. Typically, each storm dropped about two feet a day for several days at a time. And so with many thousands of others, I had ideal snow conditions for skiing. Rocks and other obstacles on the mountain were covered by the enormous amount of snow, so I was free to ski anywhere over Palisades’ renowned steep terrain. And most of the time there was “powder snow,” new/deep/light snow conditions which are treasured by Alpine skiers, making this an unforgettable season.

Another benefit from this record rain and snowfall is the ending, at least for now, of the extended drought California has been experiencing. We remain at a water “deficit,” since parts of the agricultural Central Valley have “dropped” (lost elevation) up to 20 feet from pumping out ground water to feed crops over many decades. Our underground water reserves have been running out. At least for this year and probably next, California’s man-made reservoirs and the natural reservoir of snow covering the Sierra Nevada will provide for our needs. One year doesn’t reverse the trend of drought, but it does alleviate it greatly.

What are these “atmospheric rivers”? How did all this precipitation happen to California? The term is not new, although its usage has become more widespread recently. Atmospheric rivers are narrow bands of water vapor about a mile above the ocean that extend for thousands of miles that move over the Pacific toward the west and drop large quantities of water when they reach land. Storms release moisture especially when they bump up against mountains, and the Sierra Nevada are the first high mountain range in from the Pacific. Geologic Studies have shown that about every 200 years on average California receives a series of these intense rainstorms, lasting many weeks that have flooded the entire Central Valley, where Sacramento, the capital is located, as well as many other valleys in California. The last major series of atmospheric rivers resulting in a flood much larger and longer than this year’s precipitation, was in 1861, the middle of the Gold Rush. It rained for 43 days straight, and Sacramento was submerged under 10 feet of water, as was the entire Central Valley, creating an inland sea. Thousands of people died, and the State legislature moved to San Francisco for 6 months, until the Capitol had dried out. This Scientific American article from 2013 provides some in-depth information on these periodic mega-floods.

This last unbelievable parade of atmospheric rivers occurred 162 years ago. Over at least the past one thousand years they have buried California in snow and water on average every 200 years. Folks, we are due anytime for a greater pummeling from the sky, much larger than this year’s. . .   I have spent most of my life in a state with an idyllic climate, known for its moderation and comfort. (I’m talking now about the lands nearby the ocean, where most of the population live.) Yet geologic (big earthquakes) and climatic (drought, flooding) catastrophes happen periodically in this paradise of beauty, comfort, and economic prosperity. The big rains and snows of this past winter remind me that there is more than “milk and honey” in this largest, wealthiest, and very beautiful state. Danger is ever present, but its timing is unknown.

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