The 2022–23 ski season was the biggest on record in Utah! So, just how big was the snowfall? And what’s the science behind it all? Last Chair got together with Professor Powder himself, Jim Steenburgh, along with KUTV2 meteorologist Chase Thomason to review the records and share their own stories of skiing and riding The Greatest Snow on Earth® in Utah.
Let's get a few stats on the record. First off, seven different resorts broke the 600-inch mark! Alta, the veritable shrine of deep powder at the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon, topped the list at a massive 903 inches. That’s 75 feet of powder falling from the heavens. Down the ridgeline a bit, Deer Valley Resort clocked in at 606 inches!
Ski Utah athlete Tommy Flitton skiing a very deep day at Deer Valley Resort
To say the least, it was a great year in Utah.
So, why did this happen? And how do we do it again?
Steenburgh and Thomason are part of a special breed of meteorologists in Utah who love the fact that it snows. Both got in plenty of on-snow days up in the mountains this season between their respective forecasting chores.
A list of the historic snowfall totals during the 2023–23' winter season
In this lively discussion about weather on Last Chair, the meteorologists share their adventures on the snow and explain some of the meteorological reasons why Utah had its best season ever.
And being fans of the sport, they are predestined to think positively about doing it again next year.
Video: Francis the Powder Dog is Chase Thomason's French bulldog. He generally dislikes the snow but he went viral this winter with his own form of snowsport!
Here’s a sampling of what you’ll find in this episode of Last Chair.
Jim, you’ve picked up some good fans over the years who love hearing about weather!
That's kind of the crowd that I like to hang out with, too – people who are really passionate about skiing and passionate about the weather. And of course, nowadays weather forecasting has gotten much better than it used to be. You have a lot of people who are trying to figure out where the next dump is going to be and they're adjusting their travel plans and their pursuits based on that. So more and more that's happening. That's why you're seeing companies like opensnow.com providing tailored forecasts that allow people to kind of pursue their powder pursuits.
Professor Powder Jim Steenburgh cuts a path through fresh powder in Little Cottonwood Canyon
“The atmospheric rivers really stand out for me – just tapping into so much tropical moisture in early January." - Jim Steenburgh
Chase, your own personal audience has grown now well beyond just KUTV.
Definitely this year everything has changed, having a big following across the entire state. This year tracking the snow became very ski and snow specific. I felt like a lot of folks had great engagement this year just because it was an all time year and the last several years haven't been. I wasn't here in 2011. This was my first really big snow year. And as a result, there was a lot more engagement.
KUTV's Chase Thomason smiling after a powder lap
Chase, were you able to keep up with the snowfall records?
Alta Ski Area is approaching 900 inches (it broke the mark a few days after our recording). That's just kind of a crazy number to say 900 inches at Alta. They're sitting atop the leaderboard and they do a really good job of keeping those snow totals as well, a great database of all the previous years. So hitting 900 inches when they averaged just over 500, you're basically almost seeing, you know, two snow packs in one at some of the resorts. Everyone broke their all time record. Brighton broke their record, you know, just above 850 inches, you have Snowbird above 800 inches breaking their record. You have Solitude Mountain Resort that broke their record. Even Park City Mountain was seeing more Little Cottonwood Canyon type snow this year with five to 600 inches of snow. Snowbasin Resort broke their records. Sundance Mountain Resort approaching 500 inches broke their record. So pretty much every resort in northern Utah saw their all time totals.
A former midwestern tornado chaser, KUTV's Chase Thomason loves being back home in Utah where he can do his weather work on his snowboard at Solitude.
Jim, is there a rationale to maybe too much snow?
If I told you they were all interesting and impressive. I think that's the best way to summarize it. I mean, it's an unbelievable season. I moved here in 1995. I wasn't here in the 1980s, which were really epic snow years. The best season I can remember was probably 2011. That was a great year where the storms were well spaced. It kept piling up. It was really great skiing. This was an epic season. It's not an exaggeration to say it's all time. If anything, my perspective would be that we might have had too much snow, which is kind of a heretical thing to say for me because I love it so much. But with Little Cottonwood being shut down quite a bit the last couple of weeks, I often say it might have been better if we had not gotten about half the snowfall we did after March 1, because we just really are in what I call outlier territory right now. It's just an incredibly deep snowpack. And it would have almost been better if it had tapered off a little bit sooner.
Chase, how did you tell this story to your KUTV viewers?
We made a graphic here at KUTV just to put in perspective how deep that snowpack is. Basically, an average adult giraffe is 17 or 18 feet tall. And just to equal how much snow Alta's had, you have four adult giraffes stacked on top of each other is basically what they've picked up for the entire season.
“You can see that the snow is basically hitting the signs of which run that you're going on, which is just kind of incredible to see." - Chase Thomason
Chase, any explanation for this record-breaking season?
I mean, at the end of the day, we probably just don't know why. But there are a few factors I think that we can look at on why and what happened, leading into the season. It was a La Nina year. So we like to look at that and see, you know, based on that, how we normally do. And unfortunately, on La Nina years, we can have, you know, dryer or below normal snowpacks and we can have above normal snowpack. So it kind of doesn't have a huge impact on our overall pattern. But we're also transitioning from a La Nina year to an El Nino year. And maybe that transition had to do with something. The jet stream just stayed low. We never had that big mega high that went right over Utah and blocked us. And storm after storm just kept on coming. And then the atmospheric rivers really just stand out for me––that we were just tapping into so much tropical moisture in early January.
Utah skiers and riders love to follow Professor Powder’s Tweets. How long will the snow last? Well, in 2011 there was snow through July at Alta.
Jim, what’s an atmospheric river – we heard that a lot this year?
Yeah, it's a relatively new term. It was first used in the scientific literature in the 1990s, but in the last, say, decade or so it's become more commonly used in the public. So these are not a new phenomenon. They've been affecting Utah quite a bit for all of history. My view is we really got locked in on the pattern early this year and it didn't change very much. We had some shifts and things that moved around, but there was a lot of tendency for upper level ridging, high pressure in the upper atmosphere over the North Pacific and troughing over the western United States. It may be hard to believe, but, for example, March was the second warmest March over land areas in the instrumented record. But Utah was incredibly cold. We were really in an anomalously cold area. So the large-scale pattern kind of got locked in and we just kept getting system after system after system.
Chase, can we do it again?
We can take a page from Governor Cox and pray for more snow. You know, how do we do it again? We really don't know. We just hope that we can get another great snow year. We can do our part and be grateful for what we got. But it doesn't mean that we should just be using all the water whenever we want. If we can still just conserve and do our part, but we just don't know what the next year will bring. With overall climate changing, I think we're going to have more extremes, we're going to have more historic drought. And that's just how things are going these days.
Jim, how will this year’s snowfall help the Great Salt Lake?
What’s really important when we're talking about the Great Salt Lake and big reservoirs like Lake Powell – those respond not from one year but from many, many years. And if we're going to really try to save the lake, we have to rethink how we're using water so that more water can get to the lake. It's a big challenge this year, in my view. It buys us time, which is really great. But we still have to figure out how we're going to save the lake moving forward.
As skiers and snowboarders, we all love watching the weather. Tune in to this episode of Last Chair to learn more from the experts, Jim Steenburgh and Chase Thomason.
Meet the Meteorologists
Snowboarder Chase Thomason is a familiar figure in Salt Lake City, bringing his passion for weather to the screen on KUTV’s 2News Weather Team, the CBS affiliate. A Utah native who grew up not far from Little Cottonwood Canyon, Thomason picked up his love for weather as a young boy. He cut his teeth as a meteorologist and storm chaser in Oklahoma and Texas before moving home in 2014. He’s won several regional Emmy Awards for his work at KUTV.
Known as Professor Powder, Jim Steenburgh grew up in upstate New York but moved to Utah simply for the powder skiing. An atmospheric science professor at the University of Utah, Steenburgh became the true professor of powder in 2014 with the release of his book, Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth®. A must read for any skier or snowboarder, it examines the history and science of Utah snow. A second edition will go to the presses this summer. He joined Last Chair for S2 Ep7 and S4 Ep7.
Blog: Wasatch Weather Weenies
Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth®
Jim Steenburgh’s 2014 Greatest Snow on Earth® is must read for anyone who has dreamed of skiing in Utah. Get it now or pickup the second edition out this summer.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:00| Well, it has been a record year here in Utah. And we're going to take a few minutes as we head into May now with the season winding down here in the land of the Greatest Snow on Earth. And we have two of the experts who have spent the last six months bringing us all of this amazing news. Joining us again, a podcast regular, Jim Steenburgh, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Utah, and Chase Thomason: joining us for the first time, a meteorologist with KUTV2. And gentlemen, thanks for joining us on Last Chair.
|00:00:29| Yeah. Great to be here.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:30| You know, we're heading into May right now, and it seems like it'll never end. I know the skiing is still good up there at the resorts that are open, but have both of you had enough of your fix yet, or are you still anxious to try to get a few more runs this month?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:00:45| There's a lot more skiing coming for me, I think right now it's such a deep snowpack. I'm pretty excited about the spring skiing potential This year.
Chase Thomason: |00:00:53| I have at least one more in me. I think I started off the season at Solitude, snowboarding down the mountain, doing a live weathercast. So I think I'm going to end the year, you know, bookend it just a bit and do it one more time in May.
Tom Kelly: |00:01:06| I love it. Solitude staying open until late May, which is awesome to see. Just as a little bit of background, Chase, can you give us a little 411 on yourself and how you found your way here to work at KUTV in Salt Lake City?
Chase Thomason: |00:01:21| Yeah. So I'm from Utah. I grew up at the base of the Cottonwood Canyons, so I'm local. But I kind of took a little bit of a different path. I went to school at the University of Oklahoma. I think I saw the movie Twister, and I wanted to chase tornadoes. So that was my passion. So I was like, I'm going to go to OU. So I did that. I worked in Texas and Oklahoma for several years, and then I kind of just got a phone call from one of my bosses here at KUTV who was wondering if I wanted to come home. Kind of kept in touch with some of the local TV stations because I am from Utah and thought maybe I'd come back home one day and they offered me a nice job. And I've been here almost nine years now. And, you know, I'm fortunate to be here and working at the best station in Salt Lake.
Tom Kelly: |00:02:08| Going back to your college days in Oklahoma, were you one of those weathermen that chased the storms? This is tornado season in the Midwest were you one of those guys that got in your car and started chasing around the landscape?
Chase Thomason: |00:02:23| Yeah. Every spring as a student, you got to chase cars. Your professor would, you know, talk about today's setup or the best areas would go. But when I worked at the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City, I got to chase those storms as well. And my first spring in Oklahoma at a TV station was 2013. And that was one of the all time tornadic years in Oklahoma with several outbreaks, including the Moore tornado back in 2013. In 19.
Tom Kelly: |00:02:53| You know, I know that tornadoes cause a lot of tragedy. It's an occurrence in weather that can be pretty terrifying. But it is interesting to watch those videos. And I watched these men and women traveling around the Midwest chasing these storms down. Man, that is a crazy lifestyle.
Chase Thomason: |00:03:11| It is a lifestyle and it takes a special person, especially those storm chasers. They're unique, but they're great. You know, it is scary when I think you don't know what's going on. But the more times you got to chase, the more you kind of learn the patterns of what you're looking at. And each time you just get better and better and you feel actually more safe and safe. The problem is that it's become such a big thing that you get so many storm chasers and it's called storm chaser convergence. And then you have just too many cars on the roads and that's where it becomes unsafe.
Tom Kelly: |00:03:43| It's just crazy. Let's get back to snow. Jim Steenburgh, great to have you back on the podcast. You've been on a couple of times previous, and in fact, we can harken back to the conversation that we had with Evan Thayer about mid-season during the holidays when we probably didn't really know where it was going to end up. But for folks who aren't familiar with you, can you give us a little background on your role in atmospheric science and also the book you wrote, Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth®.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:04:09| Yeah, I grew up in upstate New York, so I cut my teeth skiing in the Adirondack Mountains. One of the reasons I became a meteorologist was to find good snow, which is pretty hard to do sometimes in the eastern United States. And I went to Penn State, which is a great place to go to college, but was not a great place for skiing. So after that, I went to the University of Washington where I could ski all year long, and then I got really lucky and got a job offer here in Utah. Chase mentioned storm chasing. I talk about storm chasing Utah style, which is all about chasing powder. Yeah, that's kind of my big thing is finding the best skiing, whether it be at the resorts or in the backcountry. And that was what ultimately led me to write this book, Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth, which is kind of based in part on all the chairlift conversations I had with people asking me about meteorology. And so I decided to write a book about it. So it's a great book if you're looking for powder.
Tom Kelly: |00:05:00| Jim, I want to ask you about this and Chase, I'll come back to you on this, too. But Jim, you have a pretty good social media presence. I know a lot of us who like to follow powder follow you on Twitter. But as you've engaged more and more in social media, do you find that there's this passionate fan base that's just like really looking for all of that inside intel?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:05:22| Yeah, definitely. I mean, that's kind of the crowd that I like to hang out with too, or people that are really passionate about skiing and passionate about the weather. And of course, nowadays weather forecasting has gotten much better than it used to be. And so you have a lot of people that are trying to figure out where the next dump is going to be and they're adjusting their travel plans and their pursuits based on that. So more and more that's happening. That's why you're seeing companies like open snow.com providing tailored forecasts that allow people to kind of pursue their powder pursuits.
Tom Kelly: |00:05:51| Chase, you have a pretty big audience on KUTV. And first of all, I want to thank you for being one of those weathermen who looks at snow as a good thing, but you have a pretty good platform at KUTV. Have you found that you've been picking up more social fans just looking for, again, more insight into what's going to happen in this big storm coming in?
Chase Thomason: |00:06:12| Yeah, I think definitely this year everything has changed. You know, have a big following across the entire state. But I think this year and tracking the snow um, you know at least with the retweets on Twitter it became very you know ski specific and snow specific on folks wanting to know more on which areas want more snow. I felt like a lot of folks had great engagement this year just because it was an all time year the last several years, you know, haven't been. I wasn't here in 2011. This was my first really big snow year. And as a result, there was a lot more engagement.
Tom Kelly: |00:06:48| Let's talk about the leaderboards a little bit. And Chase, I'll go to you first on this. You were great during the season at posting some of those rolling totals that we had from the different resorts. We're recording this podcast the third week of April. We still have a little bit of time left, but can you give us a little snapshot on, you know, what those leaderboards look like right now?
Chase Thomason: |00:07:10| Yeah, Alta is approaching 900 inches, so I'm pretty sure it's a safe bet that they'll hit 900 inches within a couple weeks. We do have several storms, of course, that could impact that number. But that's just kind of a crazy number to say almost 900 inches at Alta. They're sitting at the leaderboard and they do a really good job of keeping those snow totals as well, a great database of all the previous years. So hitting, you know, 900in when they averaged just over 500, you're basically almost seeing, you know, two snow packs in one at some of the resorts. But other noticeable ones, I mean, everyone broke their all time record. Brighton broke their record, you know, just above 850in you have Snowbird above 800 inches broke their record. You have Solitude that broke their record. Even the Park City Resort seeing kind of more little Cottonwood Canyon type snow this year with five to 600 inches of snow, you know, breaking their records as well. Snowbasin broke their records. Sundance approaching 500 inches broke their record. So pretty much every resort in northern Utah saw their all time totals.
Tom Kelly: |00:08:14| Jim, you are a scientist on this, so you're not on the news every night. But nonetheless, you're following this data as it comes in. What are some of the interesting records or totals that you saw this year?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:08:30| If I told you they were all interesting and impressive. I think that's the best way to summarize it. I mean, it's an unbelievable season. I moved here in 1995. I wasn't here in the 1980s, which were really epic snow years. The best season I can remember was probably 2011. That was a great year where the storms were well spaced. It kept piling up. It was really great skiing. This was an epic season. It's not an exaggeration to say it's all time. If anything, my perspective would be that we might have had too much snow, which is kind of a heretical thing to say for me because I love it so much. But with Little Cottonwood being shut down quite a bit the last couple of weeks, at least for that area, I often say it might have been better if we had kind of not had gotten about half the snowfall we did after March 1st, because we just really have gone into what I call outlier territory right now. It's just an incredibly deep snowpack. And it would have almost been better if it had tapered off a little bit sooner.
Tom Kelly: |00:09:27| Jim, If we look across the state, 15 ski resorts across Utah from Brian Head all the way up to Beaver Mountain and Cherry Peak -- this was a phenomenon that really impacted the entire state, didn't it?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:09:42| Yeah, huge snowpack statewide. I mean, the statewide average water equivalent of the snowpack set a record. I think it peaked out at 30 inches. And so, you know, we need a big spring runoff and we're going to get it. And we just hope that this spring we have kind of an up and down spring where we don't get super hot for long stretches and say, you know, over the next several weeks, we start to slowly erode the snowpack and melt off the snowpack rather than have it coming down in one big warm up event.
Tom Kelly: |00:10:10| Chase, to go back to you for a minute. How do you get all of your information? You're the meteorologist for KUTV, the CBS affiliate in Salt Lake City. How do you get all of your data and information each day?
Chase Thomason: |00:10:24| When it comes to making the forecast or just delivering the totals?
Tom Kelly: |00:10:27| Really delivering, I think putting your forecast together?
Chase Thomason: |00:10:31| Yeah. I mean, we make our own forecasts here at KUTV. We pride ourselves on, you know, monitoring our forecasts and how well we're doing. So each day, you know, I come in and I mean, basically, I mean, I eat and breathe weather, so I'm always looking at computer models anyway, the first thing when I wake up. So I kind of have a good sense of … idea of what I'm going to be putting together later in the afternoon because I do work the afternoon evening shift. But I come in, I look at all the computer models. You know, I look at some of our in-house models that we have here at KUTV and put together my forecast. And then I make those graphics that you see behind me each and every day.
Tom Kelly: |00:11:06| Awesome. And Jim, you're an originator of a lot of data in the role that you have. But talk about how data moves around, in general, to come up with these forecasts.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:11:17| It's an incredible amount of data. We talk about meteorologists having to sip from the firehose. There's just an overwhelming amount of weather data that is collected every day. I think one national center that runs computer models a couple of years ago said they were collecting 80 million weather observations a day and assimilating about 20 million into their computer forecast model. And that includes all the satellite imagery, surface observations, everything. So it's really an incredible achievement. Weather forecasting today involves advances in many, many fields, including computer science and networking and everything else that allows us to access all of this data.
Tom Kelly: |00:11:56| Let's talk about what the mountains look like today. And I really encourage people, even if you're not a skier or snowboarder, it'd be interesting to get up the canyons right now and really see what the mountains look like, because it really is a different look. And Jim, I'll start with you and then go to Chase. But what do you notice that's different in the mountains right now? It's always hard to get that perspective of how deep the snow is. But this year, there are a lot more visible signs.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:12:19| The coverage is really impressive. I mean, as we're recording this, it's mid-April. I was skiing at Snowbasin yesterday, you know, and the whole Ogden Valley is still completely covered in snow. It's an impressive amount of coverage of snow across the state of Utah. So it's not just depth, but a lot of lower and middle elevation areas that maybe would have melted out in a typical year. Still have quite a bit of snow on the ground. So that's a really cool thing. And then, you know, snow depths are still very, very high. I think Alta has dropped below 200 inches now, but it's still in the high one hundreds. So the coverage and the depth of the snowpack is really impressive.
Tom Kelly: |00:12:55| You know, it's interesting because if you start to divide that out and figure out how many feet of snow is, that's a lot of snow.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:13:04| If does all compress down?
Tom Kelly: |00:13:06| Yeah.
Chase Thomason: |00:13:06| Yeah. We made a graphic here at KUTV just to show, you know, put it in perspective how deep that snowpack is. And basically an average adult giraffe is 17, 18 feet tall. And just to equal how much snow Alta's had you have four adult giraffes stacked on top of each other is basically what they've picked up for the entire season.
Tom Kelly: |00:13:26| Here's a little thought. Neither one of you can answer this. I just have this theory and I don't know if it's accurate or not, but with the greater depth of snow, is there more of a refrigeration effect to keep that upper surface a little bit more stable during warm spring days?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:13:43| By surface, do you mean the snowpack surface?
Tom Kelly: |00:13:46| Yeah the snowpack surface that we ski on. Is it because of the depth? Is there more of a cooling factor to keep it more stable during the day as the temperatures warm up?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:13:56| I think one thing that's important is how dirty the snowpack is and how dusty it is. So dust is, of course, on our landscape here, and it strongly affects how much of the sunlight is absorbed by the snowpack. So if you have a very clean snowpack, there's been recent snowfalls, for example, and the snowpack is really white. It reflects a large fraction, something like 90% of the sunlight back to space. But once that snow starts to melt a little bit and the water percolates down through the snowpack, sometimes the dust rises to the top, so to speak, and then it starts to absorb more sunlight. And so the snowpack surface softens up a lot quicker. Um, personally, I think the skiing conditions are better when you have a more pristine snowpack. And so I think that's the optimal situation. But the dustiness and the impurities in the snowpack make a pretty big difference.
Tom Kelly: |00:14:48| Chase you're a snowboarder, and as you've been out there, particularly the latter half of the season, how have you seen the landscape change given the record setting amounts of snowfall that we've had?
Chase Thomason: |00:15:01| Yeah, I mean, it's just interesting to see how deep the snow is compared to the tree line or even some of the ski runs. You know, you can see that the snow is basically hitting the signs of which run that you're going on, which is just kind of incredible to see. You're seeing chairlifts approaching, you know, dangerous levels where, you know, your skis and snowboards can touch the base of the mountain. So crews are digging out the snow. I was at Snowbasin last week and they were still digging out at some of the chairlifts and putting caution aside so you don't hit your head on the chairlift. So, you know, this is a very unusual, you know, year visually, just seeing all the snow. My wife works in Park City and, you know, going up to visit her and just seeing how much snow is in Park City when, you know, when we think of Park City, we don't think of deep snow packs. And especially compared to last year, they were already muddy right now and they're still having 5 to 6 feet of snow. You know, on Main Street in Park City. I was at Sundance just yesterday, and they still have feet upon feet of snow on the base of Sundance. That's another resort that typically doesn't get, you know, Cottonwood Canyon snow. So, you know, you're seeing, of course, all the snow up in the mountains, but you're also seeing it at lower elevations.
Tom Kelly: |00:16:17| Yeah, it's really pretty amazing. Let's go back and talk about our seasons, just the fun time that we all had. Chase, I'll start with you, but can you recount a few stories of being up in that deep powder this winter?
Chase Thomason: |00:16:31| Yeah, I had one good day. And as Jim mentioned earlier in this podcast, there were some days where we just had too much snow and that kind of impacts, you know, some of your plans. You know, I still have to work Monday through Friday, but you know, I got to sneak around for a few days and me and my brother went up to Snowbird. It was after just a decent snowstorm. And we say decent now because, you know, you would take an 18 inch snowstorm at any time. But we'd had so many of those this year and everything opened up right around 10:00, 11:00. They got their avalanche, you know, control done. And we were just one of the first ones on the mountains. And for some reason, that just stuck out. The skies cleared and we had, you know, a foot and a half of powder for at least a couple hours before it all got tracked out. And that was earlier in the season.
Tom Kelly: |00:17:14| Yeah, it just went on and on. And Jim, I know you've got a few good stories from this past year.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:17:19| Yeah. Somebody asked me the other day what my best day was and I had no idea what it was. I've had so many really great days. It's just a blur of the white room, so to speak. Really unbelievable ski season. I can't really single anything out. I like to tell the story though. I have some friends. I worked at the University of Innsbruck a few years ago when I was on sabbatical, and I had a couple of friends from Innsbruck come out and visit me this winter. And the first day I took one of them out, we went ski touring in White Pine and he told me it was the greatest snow he'd ever skied in his entire life. So I think whenever you can do that for somebody and take them out and they can have a day like that and it was a bluebird day without a puff of wind. It was really a fantastic day that made me feel good. And that probably is the best day I've had this year for that particular reason. I think it's because we didn't have a whole lot of Bluebird days. Those Bluebird days just kind of stick out a little.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:18:09| Yeah, that's a good point. I hadn't thought about that, but you're right. That was one of the few sunny days that I enjoyed ski touring this year.
Tom Kelly: |00:18:15| I was thinking about that recently because we've been blessed in April to have a number of really nice Bluebird days. We just didn't have that all season long. We sure had snow, but we didn't have a lot of sun.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:18:27| Working? Yeah. It's been very cloudy. Don't know what the statistics are, but I saw some plots. And, you know, I think this is probably one of the cloudiest winters we've had around here as well. And, you know, it affected people in the Valley. They would complain a little bit and I would tell them, tough luck. I'm skiing. Lots of good powder.
Chase Thomason: |00:18:44| Lots of complaints about the cloud cover.
Tom Kelly: |00:18:46| We're going to take a short break here Last Chair, and we'll be right back. And when we do come back, we're going to talk about the science of it all. And you know what? At the end of the day, we probably just don't know. We'll be right back. On Last Chair.
Tom Kelly: |00:19:10| And we're back on Last Chair with Jim Steenburgh and Chase Thomason:. And guys, I'm going to pose the toughest question of the day. Why did this happen? What's the science of it all? Chase will start it off with you. Why?
Chase Thomason: |00:19:23| I mean, at the end of the day, we probably just don't know why. But there's a few factors I think that we can look at on why and what happened, you know, leading into the season. It was a La Nina year. So we like to look at that and see, you know, based on that, how we normally do. And unfortunately, on La Nina years, we can have, you know, dryer or below normal snowpacks and we can have above normal snowpack. So it kind of doesn't have a huge impact on our overall pattern. But we're also transitioning from a La Nina year to an El Nino year. And maybe that transition had to do with something … jet stream just stayed low. We never had that big mega high that went right over Utah and blocked us and storm after storm just kept on coming. And then, of course, the atmospheric rivers really just, uh, stand out for me is that we were just tapping into so much tropical moisture in early January, you know, milder storms when we have that tropical moisture. But that moisture just streamed into California. They got tons of snow and we got tons of snow as well. So if you look at, you know, the states that got the most snow, it was California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. And so that atmospheric river just hit, you know, the central part of the West Coast.
Tom Kelly: |00:20:29| Jim, this was a term that I know that you guys as meteorologists have been using. But I think for us, the layman just watching the news at 10:00 each night and looking at open snow, we hadn't really experienced this atmospheric river concept. Tell us a little bit more about that. And was this a particularly unusual year for that?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:20:49| Yeah, it's a relatively new term. It was first used in the scientific literature in the 1990s, but in the last, say, decade or so it's become more commonly used in the public. So these are not a new phenomenon. Have people come up and ask me about these if they're new phenomenon. They've been affecting Utah quite a bit, you know for all of history and before history. So they're not new this year. My view is I haven't actually gone back to do a count, but we really got locked in on the pattern early this year and it didn't change very much. I mean, we had some shifts and things that moved around, but there was a lot of tendency for upper level ridging, high pressure in the upper atmosphere over the North Pacific and troughing over the western United States. It may be hard to believe, but for example, March was the second warmest march over land areas in the instrumented record. But Utah was incredibly cold. We were really in an anomalously cold area, so the large-scale pattern kind of got locked in and we just kept getting this, you know, system after system after system. Now why that happens, like Jay said, I don't really understand that people that are smarter than me maybe are going to have to figure it out. Sometimes these things just happen. They're random. The atmosphere has a lot of random variability and anomalous patterns. Sometimes get going and they stay locked in. But we'll see what happens when we start to dig a little more into the. Into the research over the next couple of years.
Tom Kelly: |00:22:11| Chase, was there any point in the season where all of a sudden you kind of realized, wow, this is really different, This is going to be a record year? Did that occur to you at any point in December or January?
Chase Thomason: |00:22:25| I mean, as Jim said, I mean, it just … the switch turned on in November and it just kept on snowing. But, you know. After being here for nine years. You know, typically we're like, oh, we'll dry out for a week or two. And that just didn't really happen. I think maybe in January is when we started seeing all those really heavy wet snows move in. I remember having this conversation with our chief meteorologist, Sterling Poulsen. I'm like, I just don't see it stopping. You know, we're looking at the long range computer models. I'm like, there's just a storm after storm after storm. I'm like, this is crazy. And we were like, okay, well, you know, eventually it's got to stop a little bit. And it just didn't. And then, you know, maybe in February we saw maybe a couple little breaks. And then just having this March. March was our snowiest month, which is, you know, incredible. You know, just every day I would come into work and kind of just laugh to myself saying, well, here we go again. Here we go again. And, you know, I was still kind of in shock after, you know, putting together some of these forecasts and putting snow on that seven day over and over and over.
Tom Kelly: |00:23:26| Jim, same for you. Was there a point in the season where the light kind of went on and said, wow, this is different than all those other big snow years?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:23:35| I think it was a point before Little Cottonwood had to close. For a while I looked at the forecasts and thought, This has to end now. And I started to get really nervous because I realized I always tell people, beware when the atmosphere is an outlier mode. And we were really entering outlier mode for both the meteorology and the snowpack and what could happen because we're so late in the season to get such a big heavy snowfall and then have it potentially warm up afterwards. That was when I actually started to get concerned about things and I started to tell people, We really need this to stop now. So that was, you know, for me, there was no point this year where I realized we were going to set a record. I kind of assumed that, you know, we're probably going to get a break at some point, but that never really happened this year. It just kept coming and it kept coming and it kept coming. It was a really amazing season.
Tom Kelly: |00:24:23| One of the unfortunate byproducts of so much snow is the avalanche danger that we had. It was quite pronounced. I think. Fortunately it was a relatively safe year from that perspective, but it was one that really impacted the Cottonwoods. Jim will start with you and then go on to Chase. But can you talk a little bit about the magnitude of the snow and what it did for the avalanche situation?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:24:47| I think one of the big issues in the Cottonwoods this year wasn't just how much it snowed, but also how deep the snowpack got and the fact that the avalanche paths started running very easily to the highway. This is not a typical year where you get avalanches and maybe a lot of them break up because they're hitting brush or they're hitting trees or they're hitting rocks. I mean, all of the avalanche paths and little cottonwood got greased, as people like to say, meaning that the snow is stacked up, It's buried all of the furniture that the avalanches can hit as they're coming down. And so every avalanche is running to the highway. And that created all kinds of challenges. And a lot of these avalanches were very large in this last in these last two cycles. So it was a very challenging situation. I always tell people, make sure you hug a ski patroller today, but that's especially true this year. The women and men that work, you know, at Alta and at Snowbird and at UDOT to keep the highway and keep the ski areas open. They have done incredible work this year under a lot of duress. And also just the people that work in public safety and in highway maintenance. We're very fortunate that we've made it through this season without any serious issues.
Tom Kelly: |00:25:56| Chase, you've been out in the field covering this, particularly in March and April. Any stories that you can share about what's going on out there and how these people are trying to keep us all safe?
Chase Thomason: |00:26:08| I mean, they're doing a fantastic job. You know, we've had deadlier years when it comes to, you know, avalanches. I think also getting the word out. People know how much snow we have and people maybe aren't taking the risks. I think the statistic is over 80% of fatalities. Avalanche fatalities happen when danger is in the yellow or orange. So moderate or considerable, not when it's high or extreme. People just take more risks when avalanche danger comes down a little bit. I think we just had high avalanche danger the whole season, so folks weren't taking as many risks. One thing I do remember vividly is that we had a slide up Neff's Canyon and Neff's Canyon is here in the Salt Lake Valley. You know, typically we're talking about all the slides up the Cottonwood Canyons. But we had a backcountry skier, you know, that got injured. Just a place where I take my dog for a walk. So, you know, avalanche danger was high all year long. And especially now that we've kind of transitioned from our dry slides to our wet slides, now that we're warming up to snowpack, you know that water gets really heavy. And now we're seeing, you know, the epic closure of Little Cottonwood Canyon because of these wet slides that are happening in the spring.
Tom Kelly: |00:27:16| Chase If you could talk a little bit more about what UDOT has been through to I know you've been up and covering that situation, but the plow teams that take care of particularly Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon, they've had their hands full all year long.
Chase Thomason: |00:27:29| Yeah, I mean, they're just working overtime. I'm sure they're just exhausted. But, you know, it's, you know, keep saying it. It's an all time year. They're working all time hours. And, you know, it's also dangerous for them, you know, So it's just something that you have to take one step at a time. You know, it's frustrating for folks wanting to go skiing. But, you know, when you're seeing slides going left and right and the footage is incredible that, you know, UDOT is releasing, showing all these slides, you know, overhead going across the roads and the debris from these slides. It really shows you just how dangerous and how steep Little Cottonwood Canyon is.
Tom Kelly: |00:28:04| Yeah, it is really amazing. Jim, I know you have the second edition of Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth coming out this summer or this fall. Have you been able to digest anything from this season that might make it into the second edition? Any lessons learned?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:28:20| Yeah, it's kind of the galley stage at this point. I can't put a lot in there, but I've been trying to sneak in updates on snowfall at Alta whenever they break a new record. I. I asked them to make a change. So it's a little unfortunate that the publishing timeline doesn't match Mother Nature for this year, but trying to make sure we mention the all time record in there.
Tom Kelly: |00:28:40| We're going to talk now about probably one of the saddest parts of this, and that is the spring melt, at least sad for skiers. The melt will present its own challenges and chase again, for folks listening, we're recording this the third week in April. So you're probably listening to this in May. But tell us about the snow melt and how this is going to take place and what the pros and cons are, because there's very decidedly some good things that are going to happen, but also some bad things.
Chase Thomason: |00:29:08| Yeah, the great thing is that we're going to fill up those reservoirs. To what extent is still a little bit up in the air. But I think it's going to be an epic and a huge dent to our ongoing drought situation. Of course, everybody wants to know about the Great Salt Lake, but the Great Salt Lake has already climbed three feet since November. And just within the last week, it's climbed two inches and we've only melted, you know, about 5% of our snowpack. So, you know, it is April. And we look at that snow water equivalent. And you know, what we're melting right now is the low elevation, the mid elevation snowpack. I looked at Ben Lomond Peak and it hasn't even changed even with these temperatures in the 70s and 80s. So we're not even melting the deep snowpack even yet. So that also makes me very, you know, worried because we've already had some flooding issues in our mountain communities and even here in Salt Lake City with Emigration Creek. And there's, you know, flood advisories and flood warnings for that. Um, so, you know, the bad thing is that there's going to be flooding. To what extent? We're not sure.
Chase Thomason: |00:30:11| It really depends on our temperature. We can kind of just stay near normal. Right now. We're supposed to be in the low 60s. We can just stay in the low 60s. You know, every river, every stream is going to be running high and fast regardless of what's happening as we transition into summer. But we don't want it coming all down at once. The worst thing that could possibly happen is right now, as we climb into the 80s and we stay in the 80s for a week. So that's what happened in 1983, late May, we were in the mid to upper 80s for seven days in a row and then everything came down. Also, another worst case scenario is if we get a big rainstorm and we get heavy rainfall on top of that snowpack with the warm temperatures, that will cause major flooding issues. That's the bad thing with this snowmelt. And of course, not skiing. But then, you know, the good thing is, that we're, you know, getting all that water into those reservoirs, into the Great Salt Lake and we'll see by the summer. It'll be very interesting to see how high everything does climb.
Tom Kelly: |00:31:02| Now, just to make sure this is all a good thing to get that water back in the reservoirs. But this does not mean that the drought is over, right?
Chase Thomason: |00:31:11| The drought is not over. The latest drought monitor, though, does have the entire state of Utah only in about 7% of a severe drought. Just two weeks ago, prior, 20% of the state was in severe drought. You know, the drought is not over yet, but I'm still kind of amazed by the latest drought monitor how much improvement we've had over the last couple of years. And then just this season, you know, basically we've had 2 to 3 snowpacks in just one year and it is fixing a couple of years of bad snowfall. But we've had decades of bad snowfall with 1 or 2 good seasons here or there. So, yeah, it's going to take more. It's going to take more conservation. It's not saying, hey, water your lawn now every single day. Let's use up all the water. It's still going to take folks doing their part, trying to cut down on their water usage and just be grateful we got this great snow year because who knows, maybe next year we have a dry year.
Tom Kelly: |00:32:06| Jim, we've heard a lot more at least. I think we've been digesting more this year about the snow-water equivalency factor. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Snow is not just snow. It comes in different forms, right?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:32:20| Yeah. For the snowpack, one of the key variables we use is what's called snow water equivalent, which is basically if you could instantaneously melt the snow. Down. How deep would the water be if you could just take a core and melt it down? That's kind of the most important variable because it tells you how much water is in the snowpack. So from a runoff standpoint, it's pretty important. I think this year the statewide average got to about 30 inches and that's the highest it's ever been. Snowbird right now is over 70 inches. Of course, that's a very wet place. And so they tend to see higher values. Interesting thing at Snowbird is we measure snow with a SNOTEL station it's called. The NRCS runs these stations. They're still not at their all time record since 1990. They still are a little bit behind. That's because Snowbird gets peak snowpack so late in the season. They tend to get it in late April or early May. So we're not quite to the we haven't quite phased with the deepest part of the season. So Snowbird is still not at their all time record. And a couple other snow totals aren't but most really are. There's a lot of water that's going to come down this spring. A lot.
Tom Kelly: |00:33:21| One last question for you before we move on to our fresh track section. I'll go to you first. Chase okay. This was cool. We had a great winter. How do we do it again?
Chase Thomason: |00:33:33| Take a page from Governor Cox and pray for more snow. I don't know. You know, how do we do it again? We really don't know. We just hope that we can get another great snow year. You know, we can do our part and be grateful for. Like I said, what we got, you know, doesn't mean that we should just be using all the water whenever we want. If we can still just conserve and do our part because we just don't know what the next year will bring. But with overall climate changing, I think we're going to have more extremes, we're going to have more historic drought. And that's just how things are going these days.
Tom Kelly: |00:34:04| Jim, any final thoughts?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:34:06| Yeah, I would say that's really important when we're talking about the Great Salt Lake and we're talking about big reservoirs, lakes like Lake Powell, those respond not from one year but from many, many years. And if we're going to really try to save the lake, we got to rethink how we're using water so that more water can get to the lake. It's a big challenge this year, in my view. It buys us time, which is really great. That's really important. But we still got to figure out how we're going to save the lake moving forward.
Tom Kelly: |00:34:34| Chase, Jim, I want to thank you for this little dialogue on snowfall … has been a great season. We're going to wrap this up with our Fresh Tracks section. A few final questions for you, hopefully really simple. First of all, can each of you talk about the most unusual thing that you've experienced this winter at a resort? Jim, we'll let you go first.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:34:57| You're going to have to edit this down. Let me give me a second to think about it. Okay.
Tom Kelly: |00:35:03| Chase, we'll go to you while Jim's thinking. Most unusual thing at a resort this year.
Chase Thomason: |00:35:09| I was up at Sundance Resort for New Year's. You know, had time off of work, was going to ski all that. That was one of those first atmospheric river events that we got. And, you know, with a southwest flow, it really hits portions of Utah County and Sundance very hard. And it was one of those warmer storms where Sundance was getting rain and snow. And I think they ended up with over 50in of snow. But within that 50 inches of snow, they had some crazy water total of 16in of water in that 50 inches of snow. And it was just so heavy, so wet that while we were up at the cabin at Sundance, trees were falling left and right. We lost power. Trees were going all over the road. And basically the local meteorologists got snowed in and we were stuck up there for about three days. So I didn't get to ski once we lost power. Now, as a weather geek, it was fascinating to see all that moisture, which was really cool, but that was something that I'll always remember. Basically, New Year's this year being snowed in with slush.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:14| Love that story, Jim. Most unusual thing for you this year.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:36:18| Okay, so this might be a little bit embarrassing, but I was up skiing at Deer Valley one morning and I was blown away by how deep the snowpack was there. As impressive as how much snow has fallen in the Cottonwoods, when you go to the Wasatch back, it's even more unbelievable because it's so anomalous over there. And I stopped for lunch at a place called El Chubasco. It's a Mexican place in Park City. And when I came out, the snowbanks were so big I couldn't figure out how to get out of the parking lot. So it was one of those things where I had to … took me a minute or two to drive around and finally figure out where the exit was. So I thought that was awesome. So that was the strangest thing I've experienced this year.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:55| Was cerveza involved?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:36:57| No, there was no there was none involved.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:59| Okay. Just wanted to verify that. Okay. For each of you and I know this is going to be tough, but tell me about your best day. What's your best day, Jim?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:37:08| I like I said, it's really hard for me to decide what my very best day was. But I did get an invite to ski at Wasatch Peaks Ranch a few weeks ago, and it was a deep powder day with very few people there and I'm pretty certain it's the most powder I've ever skied in one day. If you had told me at almost 56 years old that I could rack up that much vertical in one day, I wouldn't have believed you. And I don't think I've completely recovered from it. But it was worth it.
Chase Thomason: |00:37:41| You know what? Mine's kind of just a simple ski day I had with a bunch of friends. You know, it was just a normal, average day, and we haven't had a whole lot of normal average days, but we were just skiing up at solitude. We had a good group. And I think when you're skiing with a good group, those days stick out and, you know, having a good time.
Tom Kelly: |00:38:03| Awesome. There are a lot of good days out there. Just one last question. This one's just for you, Chase. Tell us how your dog got so famous. How did Francis become a big star?
Chase Thomason: |00:38:13| Well, I don't know how famous he is, but he does like to go viral. And he's just a unique dork. He's a French bulldog. You can follow him on Instagram at @FrancisFrenchBulldog. But he goes -- obsesses for these large balls that I buy at Walmart. They're $2.50. He goes absolutely bonkers and he's not a big dog. So we've had, of course, a lot of snow. So every time, you know, it snows a lot in Salt Lake City, I go buy him a ball and I give it to him. And he just is jumping around in the snow, which he hates the snow, by the way. But when he sees the ball, he launches the ball in the air. He chases it. I chase him with my camera, I put it on Twitter or Facebook, and it usually gets picked up. And he likes to go viral.
Tom Kelly: |00:38:57| Check it out, folks. You can find him on Twitter. It's a great follow. Jim Steenburgh, Chase Thomason: thanks so much for joining us on Last Chair.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:39:06| Hey, thanks for having us.
Tom Kelly: |00:39:06| And, by the way, we're going to be looking to each of you to bring us a repeat of this next year.
Chase Thomason: |00:39:12| Sounds good.
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