It was a record-breaking year in Utah and one we will never forget. It brought some unprecedented snowfall totals, and also some unprecedented challenges.
Short Term Forecast
Our season, one that will be remembered for the rest of our lives, is drawing to a close. I honestly did not think I would see a season to meet, or even exceed, 2011 levels of snowpack in my lifetime. In fact, as recently as early March of this year, I didn't think we'd challenge the 2011 totals. At the end of February, I remember saying that while our snowpack numbers were exceptional, it would take near-record snowfall in March and April to break records. Then, we saw as much as 320" of snow in March and April (including our snowiest month ever)! I was proven wrong.
It was basically a season full of getting proven wrong as a forecaster. My goal is always to try to forecast the most likely scenario, and it felt for much of the past 6 months, it was the outlier scenarios that were constantly playing out each storm. In fact, through the first half of the season, this was statistically my worst forecasting season ever because so many of the storms were delivering so much more snow than expected. The best example of this was December 11-16 when we saw a storm pass through, then bring a favorable NW flow that maintained low-density snowfall for several days. Alta picked up nearly 70" of new snow in this period. The forecast was for 24-30" -- so we more than doubled the forecast. Of course, nobody got that storm right. By the end of the season, my numbers improved and were better in-line with previous years, I just had to learn how to forecast 2022-23 storms, which apparently were a different breed than storms in seasons past.
Let's look back on the season month-by-month:
October was fairly typical, but we actually had to wait much longer than usual to see our first storm of the season. We didn't see accumulating snow at Alta until October 22nd. A storm cycle to close out the month brought us up to 30" of snow, however, which slightly exceded normal for the month.
The active pattern then continued into early November, when additional storms moved into Utah. We saw anywhere from 30-60" of snow in the first two weeks of the month in the mountains which set us up with one of the best early-season snowpacks we've seen in many years. Unfortunately, we then saw what would prove to be our longest dry spell of the winter with 17 days of little-to-no snow. We finally got a storm to close out November and ensure an above-average month of November. However, the statewide snowpack on December 1st wasn't spectacular -- only slightly above the long-term median:
A good start, but nothing sensational.
After that, we never looked back. December was consistently snowy with storms arriving every few days through the entire month, including the aforementioned storm mid-month that brought up to 70" of low-density snow to the area. Many of these storms, particularly in the late month were of an atmospheric river (AR) nature with strong SW flow and lots of moisture. It was another above-average month, and by the new year, our snowpack was even further ahead of median with many areas more than 200% of average.
This was the first time every basin was "dark blue" with 150% or more of median snowpack. It was starting to look like a very good season at this point.
Luckily, the storms continue for most of January, with a continuation of atmospheric river (AR) type storms with moist southwest flows. Sundance had an exceptional storm in January that brought up to 7" of liquid to the area and close the resort for several days. Deer Valley also feasted on this pattern which helped set the stage for their record-breaking year. We also saw Brighton pickup more snow than Alta in this period, which happens sometimes in periods of predominately SW flow. In fact, until only late in the season when Alta passed them, Brighton was leading the country in total snowfall for the season. By the end of January, we were looking like this could be one of the better years in memory.
Again, the trend of essentially all basins in the state above 150% continued. At this point, Alta had picked up 472" of snow on the season -- not too far off of their seasonal average. The state median snowpack was 15.6" of SWE, which is about where we normally peak in early April. Essentially, we had season almost a season's worth of snow by February 1st. January was the fourth consecutive month of above-average snowfall.
We then got somewhat of a break in February. I used the word "break" loosely, because it continued to snow from time to time, but they were small to medium storms. For example, Alta *only* picked up 33" of snow in the first 3 weeks of the month. It was looking likely that we were going to see our first below average month of the season. Then, the tap turned on again for the last week of the month with 57" of snow falling at Alta that week for 90" on the month and the fifth consecutive above-average month.
At the beginning of March, we were in a position in which we had the potential to see records broken for the season if the pace continued. Little did we know, March would end up being this season's magnum opus. It started with a foot on the accelerator and finished pedal to the metal! Places like Snowbasin and Alta saw their SNOWIEST MONTHS EVER with over 200" of snow. 229" at Alta-Collins is the most anywhere in the state that can be reliably reported in our history. Alta broke their all-time October-April snowfall record on March 23rd by surpassing 748", but the snow didn't stop and they finished March with 811" of snow on the season.
April started where March left off with one more huge storm to begin the month. That pushed us above and beyond our all-time statewide snowfall records. In fact, it broke the records by a wide margin. You can see this year compared to all the other big years in the below graph:
This year (black line) topped out quite a bit ahead of the legendary years of the early 80s, and also beat 2004-05 winter and 2010-11 winter. Personally, I never thought I'd see a year to rival 2010-11 in the Wasatch and this year certainly more than rivaled it. We have to go all the way back to 1951-52 to find a winter that could hold a candle to this one and per NRCS Utah, we even beat that epic winter.
While snow subsided for the most part later in April, we did see a series of weaker storms late in the month that allowed Alta to break 900" for the season. A number I never thought I'd see. 903" is the official total. Insane!
Predictably, the incredible snowpack has been causing big problems. Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons have seen numerous closures due to avalanche risk, wet slides, and now mudslides as the heat turns on. Flooding has been occurring on many streams and rivers across the state. We are seeing the price of the epic year.
Here is a rough list of records we set this year, it is far from comprehensive:
- Most snow ever in a season for Deer Valley, Alta, Snowbird, Solitude, Brighton, Snowbasin
- Highest mean snow-water-equivalent SWE in history at 30" (previous record was 26")
- Snowiest Utah snotel measurement ever (83" of SWE at Ben Lomond Peak)
- Snowiest month ever record at Utah ski resorts (229" March at Alta Ski Area)
- Most Little Cottonwood Canyon road closures
- Deepest settled snow depth (249" at Alta Ski Area)
While there are plenty more records that we could list, I think this gives a pretty good picture. One of the things that is most remarkable to me and one of the primary reasons I believe we shattered the statewide records is that this season was pretty uniformly amazing for all mountains in the state. That is sometimes not the case in big snow years. All season long, most basins were running close to 200% of median and they maintained that pace until the very end -- that's how all-time records get set.
We can recite stats all day, but how good a season is often in the eye of the beholder. For me, as a forecaster, it was a frustrating season at times because I am trying to be accurate and these storms seemed determined to prove me wrong time and time again. I do believe I did a great job at forecasting when it was going to snow, thanks in large part to excellent model performance well in advance. The models gave us excellent lead times to know when storms were going to hit. It made chasing powder easy. My frustration was just that when the storms arrived, they seemed to "over-perform" every time. I shouldn't complain, but I'd like to be able to better forecast these.
Normally in a season, I have time to rest during periods of high pressure. I had no such luck this year. I had a 4 AM alarm all season. It felt like every Daily Snow post I wrote all season I was wrapping up one storm and talking about another storm moving in with another storm on its heels. Honestly, it was exhausting mentally. It really became difficult at times to separate one storm from another in my head. Long-time readers know that I like to have fun in these posts and insert some humor. This season, I felt like I didn't have time to do that, and because I was trying to fit in so much information into every post, my writing quality suffered a bit. Again, not that I'm complaining, but it would have been nice to have a bit more fun with the posts this year as I've done in the past.
From a skiing standpoint, it's hard to complain. The road closures late in the season kinda dampened what had otherwise been an insanely good year. It felt like it was harder to find a non-powder day than it was to find a powder day all season long. Prior to having a kid, I was able to ski 100+ days per year. Now, I'm the primary caregiver for my son every day which means I am skiing far less than I used to. The quality of the days I did ski was exceptional, but I didn't get nearly as much total time-on-snow as I did in my previous life.
I've also recently been given news that I have herniated disks in my back and compression fractures in my spine. I was told that I probably shouldn't ski anymore this spring. Hopefully, I can get this figured out without surgery and will be good-to-go for next season, but who knows?
Overall, I am so happy we all got to live through a season like this. It sounds hyperbolic, but I really do think I'll be telling my grandkids about the winter of 2022-23 someday. Being able to forecast this season was an absolute joy and privilege.
I may finish posting daily from now on, but snow showers are likely to continue at times through May. We may be adding a bit to our season totals. You can follow continued weather updates from me on Twitter (@WasatchSnow).
Looking ahead to next year, all signs point to El Nino developing. The main question will be whether it is moderate or strong. Of course, ENSO signal doesn't mean much for us here in Utah -- so it doesn't really tell us anything. Obviously, I'm hoping for another record season ;-)
Evan | OpenSnow