Snow “Of Epic Proportions”

California Snow Depth 19 December 2010

California Snow Depth 19 December 2010

With more falling…

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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:

"City of San Franciso" Train, in Wyoming.  1948

"City of San Franciso" Train, in Wyoming. 1948

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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[4]. 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,[6] 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)[7] and the covered crossovers in Shed #47 (MP 198.8)[8] located about a mile East of the old flyover at Eder[9]. 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:

Boreal Ridge Live Ski Camera

Boreal Ridge Live Ski Camera

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.

Donner Lake and abandoned railroad path over summit

Donner Lake and abandoned railroad path over summit

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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.

Snowshoe Thompson

"Snowshoe" Thompson

"Snowshoe" Thompson

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.

In Conclusion

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:

California Current Snow Depth

California Current Snow Depth

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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10 Responses to Snow “Of Epic Proportions”

  1. George says:

    I was up at Lake Tahoe visiting family members of a friend in the 1980’s when there was a 10-foot storm. I was staying at my friend’s sister’s in Incline Village. There was a lot of rain at the lower elevations and the main gas line to Lake Tahoe washed out. There was no natural gas to the towns around the lake for several days. I watched TV footage of helicopters picking up stranded people in flooded areas of the central valley (I believe it was around Manteca but I can’t remember). People were stranded on highway overpasses while the surrounding areas were flooded. It would have been between 1982 and 1985 but I don’t remember exactly when it was.

    It must have been early 1983 (maybe February?). I notice that the snow depth at Bighorn Plateau was 133.7 inches in April, the highest recorded since 1958.

    Then there was the “Great Floods” along the Klamath (OR) and Eel (CA) Rivers in 1955 and 1964. 1964 was the worst with the river cresting at around 45 feet above flood. I would imagine the Sierras got some “epic” snow those years, too, but the rain in 1964 was in March so that might have been mostly rain in the Sierras. And the snow at Bighorn in April that year says it was only 22.8 inches (the lowest recorded) so that points mostly to a rain event.

  2. George says:

    Also, Sacramento was wiped out from floods in 1850. The 1955 flood saw over 15 inches of rain in Shasta county over a 24 hour period, that would roughly equate to 15 feet of snow.

    Wikipedia says 1964 was in December:

    The six days from December 19-24, 1964 were the wettest ever recorded at many stations on the North Coast. Every major stream in the North Coast produced new high values of extreme peak flows. 34 California counties were declared disaster areas.

    That would also have produced some prodigious snows.

    2004 saw a record snow in October (!).

    Must have been 1983 when I was in the snowstorm at Tahoe:

    Echo Summit, California 747 inches 1982-83

    That’s 62 feet of snow in one season!

  3. E.M.Smith says:

    I think it was the February time frame of that ’55 flood that was the trip up to the mountains. (So was it ’55 or ’56? I think it was February ’56 and the car was new…)

    The ’64 was the year the bridge washed out IIRC ( and we went to the river to look at the flooding / bridge failure. The water was just a coulpe of foot or so under the top of the banks and folks were discussing what to do if they breached.

    ’83 was when the snows returned and the skiing got better, but then you couldn’t get there ;-)

    Per the map, we’re at 5 meters or about 16 feet and it’s only just begun. I think we can get 5 or 6 more of these storms crammed into this year, if we try really hard…

  4. George says:

    One other thing I noticed. 1955 was a huge salmon run in Oregon and held the record … until this year. 2010’s Oregon salmon run beat 1955. 1955 was an incredibly wet year.

    I wonder if that is any indication. I wonder if there is some condition at sea that results in a huge run of salmon to spawn that also creates wetter than normal conditions here.

  5. George says:

    Yet another interesting indication is the opening and closing date of roads in Yosemite:

    Looks like Tioga Pass Road closed on November 19 this year.

    The closing date of Sonora Pass Road (SR 108) would be another indication but I can find no historical record of closing dates for that road.

  6. George says:

    Article on 1955 record and current record breaking run:

    Note there is one single sentence at the end of the article:

    ““There are a couple of good years of ocean conditions that are coming into play,” Ferguson said”

    So … maybe the reduced salmon runs of the past decade weren’t due to anything we were doing, maybe it was nature. Maybe there is something in the ocean conditions that, in effect, tells the salmon “this is going to be a dry year, better not make the spawning run just yet” and then at some point they get the “go for it!” signal from something in their environment.

  7. Curt says:

    I was a young single guy in the early 80s, and my buddies and I rented a cabin for skiing at Donner Pass for the entire winters of 81-82 and 82-83. Both were El Nino winters with “epic” snow fall. The snow was 20 feet deep on the ground all winter long — we had to tunnel down to a second-floor doorway all winter. I remember the Kirkwood ski resort about an hour south of Tahoe reported 55 feet of snowfall the first of those winters and 66 feet the second.

  8. George says:

    Accuweather has a story where they are saying that state officials have mentioned the possibility of closing Donner Pass:

    What is also going to be interesting is the snow on the Southern California mountains. These would have more impact on albedo than anything up North. There are many peaks over 10,000 feet down there and after these storms move through it will likely get bright and sunny.

  9. John F. Hultquist says:

    Another multi-feet snow event in the western mountians (Cascades) and the Great Northern Railway, February, 1910

    You might want to look at these pages:,_Washington

    from there you can link to this:

    Toward the end under “See also” is a link to an incident (Rogers Pass) in B.C. a few days later.

    The WA-DOT camera for Stevens Pass Summit and current road conditions is here:

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