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There is no such thing as “average” weather across the western United States. Especially when it comes to snow, the use of averages is somewhat misleading. Over half of the snowfall in big mountains comes from just 20% of the storms. So it’s no wonder that just a few days of consistent snow can change the entire complexion of a winter season. In other words, all it takes to replace your mountain bike with powder skis is one or two good storms!

Let’s take a look back at the third week in January and hone in on changes to the storm track and see what this meant in terms of snow (lots of snow).

During November and December of 2011, the storm track was not one that favored big snow for most of the western U.S. In fact, it seemed like there was a force field over areas of California, Utah, and Colorado as storms kept going north (and sometimes south) of these states. However, by about January 11th, we could see that a pattern change was inevitable.

And now in the rear view mirror, we can celebrate because the predicted change in storm track came true in real life, and it snowed a ton. Between January 18th and the 23rd, areas of Tahoe, Utah, the Tetons of Wyoming, and Colorado – all areas that were down on their luck in terms of fresh snow – recorded feet and feet and feet. There were powder days at Park City, Kirkwood, Aspen, Grand Targhee, Snowbird, Copper and more.

To put this 5-day snowfall in perspective, take a gander at the “percent of normal” snowfall map comparing January 18th (on the left) to January 23rd (on the right). While the Tahoe area is still well below average for snowfall this season, this short period nearly doubled their percentage from 25% to 47%. In Utah, a 53% of average snowpack in the Wasatch is now at 74%. And in the Tetons, 74% turned into 95%. These numbers don’t necessarily indicate the exact quality of the skiing, but the smart money would say that more snow generally means happier skiers.

Most areas across the west aren’t back to average, but you can see that a timely change in the storm track can have a big effect on the snowpack, almost overnight. Long-term forecasts have very little skill in predicting exact storm locations and snow totals, so I won’t speculate about what’s to come as we head into February. But I can say that whatever is to come, this season has certainly proven to be anything but average, so let’s hope this holds true (in the form of ‘better than average’) into next month!

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  • Grant B

    Thanks for putting snowfall into perspective, Joel. And congrats on transitioning your hobby into your profession!

  • Sitting in VT – waiting for snow, contemplating visits west, checking the web for info sources & the best yet is OpenSnow, Glad to see you here too.