Snow in Utah helps increase snow and ice levels in the mountains. But will it be enough amid extreme drought?


Experts say they are just a start, but more storms are needed.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City is covered in snow on Wednesday, December 15, 2021.

The blizzards that hit Utah this week marked a head start in rebuilding the state’s key alpine ice cover, shedding 1-2 feet of snow in some areas and more significantly in other regions.

But Utah is still behind, accounting for about 60 percent to 70 percent of the snow that is considered average, according to Jim Steenburgh, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah and an expert on mountainous climates.

“What we really need is a multi-day storm cycle in the mountains to get us back where we really want to be at this time of year,” Steenburgh said.

Much of Utah remains in ‘extreme drought’

Latest report from Utah Department of Water Resources, completed just before the major storm made landfall on Tuesday night, showed that 78.71% of Utah remains in a state of “extreme drought”. Another 20.81% are in severe drought; 0.07% is in a special drought condition.

Snow equivalent (the amount of water the snow and ice would produce if melted) was 2.8 inches as of December 14. That’s 74% of the average for that day and 18% of the average for the layer. Peak snowfall, usually occurs in early April.

This week’s storm has increased the risk of avalanches in the mountains – it is now “significant” in the mountains near Salt Lake City, Logan, Ogden, Provo and Moab, as well as in the Uintas and Skyline areas, according to the Avalanche Center of Utah.

But according to National Weather Service, There is no rain in the forecast for Utah through Tuesday. The next chance for rain and snow is Wednesday – a storm that could disrupt the reversal is forming in the valleys of northern Utah.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heavy snow affects traffic and residents in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, December 15, 2021.

‘We’ve lost a lot of sunshine’

Utah’s mountain ice and snow look pretty good in October, when the state gets two to three times more rain than normal. Salt Lake City totals 3.49 inches; it averages 1.26 inches.

“We went ahead of schedule,” said David Church, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. “But then we entered November, and we didn’t have [precipitation] in three or four weeks. That really keeps us coming back.”

Same goes for higher than average temperatures. According to the Utah Department of Water Resources, the average temperature from November 15 to December 15 was 4.8 degrees above normal, causing some ice and snow to melt.

According to Church, Utah experienced a record-low snowfall from about December 1-9. A storm on December 9 caused the ice sheet to fall just below the 10th percentile. Storms of the week. This brought the state up about 20 percent. (The 50th percentile would be the mean.)

“It was horrible, because we had a lot of snow up high in October. But we lost a lot of sunshine,” said Steenburgh. “So it’s kind of like a reset, where we’ve just started accreting snow and ice, starting in early December.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A fallen tree branch fell on power lines due to heavy snowfall in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, December 15, 2021.

There may be more flow this season

It’s not all bad news: Soil moisture is 16% above average for this time of year. If that holds up, it could mean more mountain runoff in the reservoirs in spring and summer.

“Last year, we had record dry spells as we entered winter,” said Church. “And then we put a layer of below-average snow and ice on top of that. So when it melts, a lot of that runoff goes into the soil. “

“Basically, the soil can absorb about half of the moisture instead of flowing into the reservoirs,” he continued. “That’s key for the drought to continue to get worse.”

Due to improved soil moisture, “We’re in a much better place than we were last year,” Church said. “Whatever snow cover we build this year will be much more effective because it will dry up next year – flowing into reservoirs, not just seeping into the soil.”

Snow usually doesn’t peak until early April, when it begins to melt. That usually continues until June.

“From a water perspective, building the ice cover on the mountain is one of the most important things,” says Church. “In a way, it acts like a cistern for us – a frozen cistern.”

But that doesn’t mean Utah’s valleys need to be covered in snow again and again throughout the winter. “If it just rains in the valleys and then we keep a lot of good ice in the mountains then that will be fine,” Church said.

“Snow in the mountains and rain in the valley work,” says Steenburgh, who follows “Professor Powder” on Twitter. “Sometimes I like the snow in the yard. But being at 5,000 feet of snow means less shoveling and less wear, but I can still go skiing. It’s kind of a dream scenario. “ Snow in Utah helps increase snow and ice levels in the mountains. But will it be enough amid extreme drought?

Yasmin Harisha

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