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2015-2016 Utah Season Wrap-Up

While there will continue to be skiing up at Snowbird thru the end of the month, for the most part, the season is over and our minds are turning to other activities.  Time for our annual season wrap-up where we look back at the numbers and make an analysis.  

The Expectation:

"El Niño" was the phrase on everybody's lips entering this year.  If you remember, it was, by traditional standards, one of the strongest El Niño events we've ever recorded.  ENSO region 3.4 reached weekly anomaly values of +3.0C, which is unheard of.  The big fear (hope) was that this El Niño would bring soaking rains to Southern California and the desert southwest, a la 1997-98.  The other expectation, was that El Niño would have a major impact on global temperatures, also similar to 1997-98.  We would see a very warm winter for the Northern Hemisphere.  

For Utah, we discussed extensively that ENSO had very little correlation to snowfall, especially in Northern Utah.  We've seen El Niño years go both ways.  However, the hope was the the sheer strength of this Niño would push the heavy rains/snows farther north.  

The Reality

The reality was that El Niño didn't have the traditional impacts on the Southern California region that was expected, instead SoCal generally saw below normal precipitation.  As you headed farther north.  Northern California up into Oregon and Washington actually did quite well.  Plenty of rain.  Snow levels were generally higher than normal so the snowpack didn't reflect the record rainfall amounts -- but still, generally a healthy winter season for the Northwest.  Tahoe also saw snow amounts near normal for the first time in 5 years.  Very good for the drought situation.  Globally, temperatures were off the charts.  The warmest winter on record for the N. Hemisphere and it wasn't even close.  

So while the global impacts were close to what we'd expect for a strong El Niño, the more regional effects in western North America were far different.  

Utah's Winter

After a slow start in November, the tempo picked up quickly for us in mid-December.  A series of storms brought plentiful snowfall to both the mountains and the valleys.  A short break to end December and begin January, before more storms rolled in for the second half of January into early February.  Then, as with last season, we saw an extended break in the action with only occasional storms.  While not quite as bone dry as last year, we quickly fell below normal and struggled to make up ground through the end of the year.  Finally, during the second half of April, the tempo picked up again with several wet spring storms, but by that time, it was too little too late and we have to accept that statewide, we were below normal for the 5th consecutive year.  

The Numbers

At Snowbird, here is the season graph for Precipitation, Precip Avg, Snowpack Snow-water-equivalent (SWE), and SWE average... 


You can see the snowpack (blue line) peaked at the beginning of April, far earlier than average (red line).  It also peaked about at about 80% of the normal peak.  Most of this was due to many consecutive, warmer-than-average sunny days for the first two weeks of April.  We tried hard over the past two weeks to recover some of that snowpack, but once the spring thaw is underway, it's hard to make up ground.  The total precipitation (black line), however, was much closer to average (grey line), than the snowpack.  This indicates there was a lot more melting and/or mixed precipitation than normal.  

When you compare this year to the previous 4 years....


As of April 1, we were a decent ways ahead of each of the previous four years (dark blue).  But as stated above, the early thaw saw us fall behind.  The recent spike has us back up near the top again, but the peak snowpack fell just short of 2013 (light blue).  

Here are the same graphs for other regions of Utah...

Thaynes Canyon (Park City): 



Ben Lomond (near Snowbasin/Powder Mountain): 



Tony Grove Lake (near Beaver Mountain): 



Midway Valley (near Brian Head):



Overall, it seems the areas that are doing best are the far north (Tony Grove Lake), which was near average for precipitation (not snowpack) and the far south.  Brian Head was above normal for the year by a bit and with the recent storms, has really jumped ahead of where they would typically be or this time of year.  Midway valley at 155% of the median snowpack.  For most of Central Utah and the Wasatch, we were below average.  At an average of about 90% of normal precipitation and 80% of average snowfall.  It's tough to summarize an entire state, but I'd say we were below normal this year statewide, but not by a lot.  Certainly, it was much better than last year on all accounts.  

The Skiing:

Snowpack is one thing.  The perception of how a season was from a skiing standpoint is another.  Personally, I like to count the number of days with 6" or more of fresh snow (within 24-hours) and the days with 12" or more of fresh snow.  Generally, this gives me a good gauge of how winter is from a skiing standpoint.  Since Alta keeps very good historical snowfall records, I will use their data for this.  

This season (Nov-April), we had 32 days with at least 6" of snow in the preceding 24 hours.  11 of those days had totals of 12" or more.  When we break it down by month, we get the following: 


You can see that we had 5 days in November with 6" or more of snow, but only 1 had a foot or more.  8 days of >6" for Dec and Jan with 2 and 3 >foot days respecitively.  Then things cooled off in February and March.  April had as many or more foot+ days (2) than every other month except for January.  To have 32 days with >6" and 11 days with >12" is not bad at all, but how does that stack up to previous years?  Let's find out: 


This year's 32 was higher than last year (21), 2013-14 (27), 2012-13 (29), and 2011-12 (23).  We even had more days with 12" or more this year than each of the previous years which had 7,7,10, and 8 respectively.  Of course, we are all still trailing that tower on the right that was the 2010-11 season.  46 days with 6" or more and 20 of those were a foot or more.  On the x-axis I included the reported seasonal total for Alta as well.  You can see that this year, while technically receiving 11" less than 2012-13, we still had a better season in terms of frequency of storms.  Of course, we are almost 300" below 2010-11, and that doesn't even account for the fact that it snowed well into May in 2011.  

My season

For me, I'd say the above graphs generally reflected this season well for me.  While the totals were not quite up to standard.  I had a much higher powder skiing count than in the previous four seasons.  At one point at the end of January,  23 of my previous 25 days skiing had been legitimate powder days.  My standard for what I'd consider a "powder day" is usually at least 6" of fresh, relatively untracked snow.  I had 38 such days this season with 33 at resorts and 5 in the backcountry.  I had 62 total days on snow, which means roughly 61% of my ski days were powder days.  Of course, even on non-powder days, I was usually still able to find some goods, even if it required putting in a bit of effort.  

I'm not very good at documenting my skiing, but luckily, there were often people with cameras who took shots of me at times this season.  Here are a few photos: 

December 14, 2015,  Photo: Photo John
Location: Alta, Date: December 14, 2015, Photo taken by: Photo John
December 15, 2015,  Photo: Chris Pearson
Location: Alta, Date: December 15, 2015, Photo take by: Chris Pearson
December 23, 2015,  Photo taken by: Joel Gratz
Location: Brighton, Date: December 23, 2015, Photo taken by: Joel Gratz
Location: Solitude, Date: December 2015, Photo taken by: Joel Gratz
Location: Solitude, Date: December 2015, Photo taken by: Joel Gratz
Location:  James Peak, Powder Mountain,  Date: February 20, 2015
Location: James Peak, Powder Mountain, Date: February 20, 2016
Location: Snowbird, Date: March 23, 2016
Location: Snowbird, Date: March 23, 2016
Location: LCC side-country,  Date: April 1, 2016,  Photo taken by: Marc Guido
Location: LCC side-country, Date: April 1, 2016, Photo taken by: Marc Guido
Location: Alta, Date: Closing day, April 24, 2016,  Photo by:  Marc Guido
Location: Alta, Date: Closing day, April 24, 2016, Photo by: Marc Guido

As I said, I would call this season good but not great.  I certainly got my fair share of powder.  Relative to last year, I'm not complaining.  It was my best season on skis since 2010-11, for sure.  

Of course, a season's quality is all in the eye of the beholder.  So tell me, how do you think this season was?  


Evan | OpenSnow

P.S.  Big thanks to the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC) for the snowpack data presented.  Remember, these are government agencies funded by our tax dollars, so this data is freely accessible to the public.  Not to mention the fact that much of the model data used for these our forecasts is also freely accessible thanks to tax dollars.  Big thanks to Alta Ski Area for the snowfall data used in the bar graphs.