With more falling…
Last night on The Weather Channel they were giving their prediction for the present round of storms making a mess of things in California. I’d like to provide some perspective on that.
The announcer said this storm would be “of epic proportions” and that snow could reach “15 FEET, not inches; FEET” in the Sierra Nevada mountains. (Sierra Nevada meaning Snowy Mountains…)
Now, it’s not unheard of to have snowfall from one storm measured in feet. And it’s not unheard of to have snow total measured at 10 or more feet. Heck, we had one snow storm “of epic proportions” when I was about 3 or 4 years old (a bit fuzzy on the exact age) when my Dad put us all in the car (56 Chevy I think) and we went up to have a look at it. This was a several hour drive from the 32 foot elevation level of the Central Valley of California. Not something you would do for just any old snowfall. But a couple of years before the train “City of San Francisco” had gotten stuck in such a storm.
Well, the road had been ploughed (one lane each way) and the walls of snow were about 18 feet high on each side. It was VERY strange to be driving in this trench in the snow. We went up to somewhere near Donner Pass. (Yes, that Donner Pass, where some of the Donner Party made it through a different and horrible snowy winter of “epic proportions” by dining on the ones who did not…) So we’ve had severe snow events on and off for a very long time.
The “City of San Franciso” Train
A few years before that, in 1952, a passenger train had gotten stranded. It’s an interesting story too. From the wiki:
On January 13, 1952, another group became stranded about seventeen miles (27 km) west of Donner pass at Yuba Pass on Track #1 adjacent to Tunnel 35 (on Track #2) at about MP 176.5. Southern Pacific’s passenger train City of San Francisco was en route westbound through the gap when a raging blizzard slowed the train to a halt. The passengers and crew were stranded for three days until the nearby highway could be plowed enough for a caravan of automobiles to carry them the few miles to Nyack Lodge.
Think about what kind of blizzard that must have been…
There is a really good write up of it, with great pictures, here:
that gives a great perspective on what things can be like “up there”…
OK, again from the wiki:
Principally designed and built under the personal, often on-site direction of the CPRR’s Chief Assistant Engineer, Lewis M. Clement (1837–1914), the original (Track #1) summit grade remained in continuous daily use from June 18, 1868, when the first CPRR passenger train ran through the Summit Tunnel, until 1993 when the Southern Pacific Railroad (which operated the CPRR-built Oakland-Ogden line until its 1996 merger with the Union Pacific Railroad) abandoned and pulled up the 6.7 mile (10.7 km) section of Track #1 over the summit running between the Norden complex (Shed #26, MP 192.1) and the covered crossovers in Shed #47 (MP 198.8) located about a mile East of the old flyover at Eder. Since then all East and Westbound traffic has been run over the Track #2 grade crossing the summit about one mile (1.6 km) south of Donner Pass through the 10,322-foot (3,146 m) long Tunnel #41 (aka “The Big Hole”) running under Mt. Judah between Soda Springs and Eder. Then operator SPRR made this change because the railroad considered Track #2 and Tunnel #41 (which was opened in 1925 when the summit section of the grade was finally double tracked) to be far easier and less expensive to maintain and keep open in the harsh Sierra winters than the Track #1 tunnels and snow sheds over the summit.
I can understand the decision, but it’s a part of my personal history that’s now gone, too. It was always some fun to watch trains struggling over that pass and the snow plough clearing the spaces between the ‘sheds’. Oh well. Maybe it’s available for a cross country run… Lunch in the snow sheds?
Or you can look at the web camera at the ski resort:
The Donner Party
Heading east from Sacramento, just after that ski resort, you climb a bit more, then drop down to Donner Lake. They camped at the end of the lake. You can see the old railroad bed in this picture.
If you’ve never read of The Donner Party, it’s important to understanding just how bad it can be in The Sierra Nevada Mountains. This article has a reasonably short and well written description of events:
Part of what made it such an extreme bit of history was that the snow levels were very high. Higher than has been seen since as near as I can tell. The date was about 1846, so it might be constructive to look at weather patterns in the years each side of that. ( Hmmm…. 1846 + 176 = 2022 or about what Habibullo was predicting… wonder if, nah… but maybe?)
Some quotes? OK, after the “lead in” of describing the travel TO the west (also a good part of the story, but not much weather related) they reach the pass…
October 28th, an exhausted James Reed arrived at Sutter’s Fort, where he met William McCutchen, now recovered, and the two men began preparations to go back for their families.
As the rest of the party continued to what is now known as Donner’s Lake, snow began to fall. Stanton and the two Indians who were traveling ahead made it as far as the summit, but could go no further. Hopeless, they retraced their steps where five feet of new snow had already fallen.
So here we have snowfall beginning about a month before Thanksgiving. That’s part of why I use it as a benchmark date. Snow before Thanksgiving is an early start. We’ve had snow falling and skii resorts open before Thanksgiving, though only by about a week… So I’d suspect the Donner Party years were rather like now. “Early” snow on the passes, then an “Epic” storm train arrives. So watch that date of “first snow”. If it moves from near November 18 back to November 8 you’ve got issues.
At Donner Lake, two more attempts were made to get over the pass in twenty feet of snow, until they finally realized they were snowbound for the winter. More small cabins were constructed, many of which were shared by more than one family. The weather and their hopes were not to improve. Over the next four months, the remaining men, women, and children would huddle together in cabins, make shift lean-tos, and tents.
Note that “20 Feet of snow”. And this was near the START of the winter. More snow fell. A lot more.
On Thanksgiving, it began to snow again, and the pioneers at Donner Lake killed the last of their oxen for food on November 29th.
The very next day, five more feet of snow fell, and they knew that any plans for a departure were dashed.Many of their animals, including Sutter’s mules, had wandered off into the storms and their bodies were lost under the snow. A few days later their last few cattle were slaughtered for food and party began eating boiled hides, twigs, bones and bark. Some of the men tried to hunt with little success.
Then there is the part of the story where repeated relief parties are sent, and barely get any food in and a few people out. Due to the persistent weather:
On March 3rd, Reed left the camp with 17 of the starving emigrants but just two days later they are caught in another blizzard.
A fourth rescue party set out in late March but were soon stranded in a blinding snow storm for several days. On April 17th, the relief party reached the camps to find only Louis Keseberg alive…
In the end?
In the Donner Party tragedy, two-thirds of the men in the party perished, while two-thirds of the women and children lived. Forty-one individuals died, and forty-six survived. In the end, five had died before reaching the mountains, thirty-five perished either at the mountain camps or trying to cross the mountains, and one died just after reaching the valley. Many of those who survived lost toes to frostbite.
It’s a heck of a story. Men going out in horrid conditions to try and keep their families alive. Desperate folks doing anything to make it through some truly epic snow conditions. The amazing thing to me is how many did survive. OK, we had snow starting at the end of October / early November; a big big dump, and continuing on in to April.
The first ski resort you come to driving up I-80 is on that path they took. In drought years it still has some snow, though has needed snow making equipment from time to time. In very heavy snow years, it’s just a mountain of snow. In the parking lot is a statue to Snowshoe Thompson. The mail could not be delivered and he got fed up with the lousy service (I guess some things never change) and started to carry the mail through on cross country skis. (not snowshoes, but that’s what they called them then. Giant 10 feet / 3 meter skis. He was from Norway and taught folks here how to make and use skis.) That, too, is an interesting story, but not for today… Just realize that for several years about that time there was plenty of snow in winter to cross the mountains on skis, but too much for mules and wagons.
The snow they had then ought to serve as a benchmark for what can happen in The Sierra Nevada Mountains. I’ve been watching those mountains ever since I first was taught the story in school ( it was thought wise to let kids here know what the mountains were like, and folks were less PC about things like telling kids how bad their “fellow man” could be when desperate; or how nobel when mounting a rescue against all odds). It’s been a long time and we’ve still not had a return of those extreme snows.
But this storm is set to deliver 15 feet in one dump. And winter hasn’t officially begun yet.
It will be a very interesting winter to watch…
In the late ’70s it was a different story. Even the major ski resorts (about 1000 ft further up and in some of the best places for snow) were having snow droughts. I painfully remember learning to ski and then having years on end with hay covering bald patches on “Mountain Run” at Squaw Valley.
Why does this matter?
Because the late ’70s was just about the time that the Cold Phase of the PDO was swapping to the warm phase. When the oceans would have less heat to evaporate water and the air would be warmer so have less reason to drop it (and more of what was dropped would be as rain, not snow). Go back a bit further, the early ’50s we were in about the same point as now. Warm ocean coming off the ’30s peak headed into the bottom of the ’70s; with plenty of cold AIR from Canada to dump that water as snow in the mountains.
There is a well attested (peer reviewed, not “pal reviewed”) pattern of global cooling cycles bringing wet and more snow to the USA Western Region. And right now we’re getting precipitation of ‘Epic Proportions”. It’s not a very long stretch to see that means we’re cooling. And fast.
Shows we can watch lake levels to tell us how fast. And the snow in the mountains above those lakes.
So watch the snow depth in the Sierra Nevada. It will tell you a great deal about what’s actually happening in the world. We have moved the track, so we’re unlikely to have many stuck trains (like we did back then). On the other hand, the guys running the rails now have most likely never lived through winters like they were 60 years ago… It will be interesting to see if they start breaking out the Rotary Snow Plough engines. Why does this matter? Because now a great deal of “goods” are landed in L.A. and Long Beach and shipped by train to the rest of the country. The same storm that’s walloped the north is also hitting the south. Yeah, less snow issues there, but it’s still likely to be a mess.
Just found the “current” link where it looks like they keep a current version of the snow map. I’ll put that one here so we can have a place to “check up” from day to day: