Don't you just love it when you have to pick up your phone to call your boss back home. 'Hey, really sorry, but we just got snowed in with 60 inches of new snow. We can't get back to the airport. We're stuck up this mountain canyon.' Now that's a great ski trip!
For over a half century, Utah has been known to skiers and riders as the home of The Greatest Snow on Earth. But what's the science behind it? Do you know the three ingredients to creating great powder? And what role does Goldilocks play in all of this? Atmospheric science professor Jim Steenburgh is a good guy to know when you head to the mountains. He wrote the book: Secrets of The Greatest Snow on Earth. And he's ready to share some secrets with host Tom Kelly on Ski Utah's Last Chair podcast.
Growing up near upstate New York's Tug Hill plateau (think Lake Ontario lake effect snow), Steenburgh was no stranger to snow. In fact, he'll tell you about his powder skiing experiences at tiny Powder Ridge there. But once he sampled Utah powder on a college trip with his father, there was no turning back. Lo and behold, a job offer to teach at the University of Utah set him up. Today, he's the guy you want in your ski group to tell you where to find the snow.
Water content, atmospheric flow, elevation, geography - it all plays a role in The Greatest Snow on Earth. Armed with extensive historical knowledge and real time meteorological data, Steenburgh's computer-like mind plots incoming storms to map out the best lines for the coming days.
What advice do you give Utah visitors in planning?
OpenSnow.com or UtahSkiWeather.com are good possibilities. Let the experts be the ones to guide you. Becoming an armchair forecaster, if you're not in Utah, can be challenging. It takes a while to get used to the meteorology around here. But looking at those forecasts is pretty important. If you're thinking about riding at a resort but going out of bounds, you know, you really want to be looking at what is happening with the snowpack and with avalanches on UtahAvalancheCenter.org. For me, it's one of those things where I try to look at it every day so I'm in tune with what's going on.
So, what's the analysis? Does Utah have The Greatest Snow on earth?
I often tell people there's not a scientific test for The Greatest Snow on Earth - it's in the eye of the beholder. I don't think there's any doubt, though, that that Utah has some of The Greatest Snow on Earth. There are really three kinds of key ingredients for great powder skiing or a great powder skiing climate. But Utah's climatology, especially in the Cottonwood Canyons, is really biased towards lots of pretty good powder days.
Want to know the three secrets?
Listen in to Ski Utah's Last Chair episode with Jim Steenburgh to learn more including:
Tune in to Last Chair: The Ski Utah Podcast presented by High West Distillery and Saloon on your favorite podcast platform. Subscribe to get first access to every episode.
Utah Powder Fun Facts (from Secrets of The Greatest Snow on Earth)
Weather, climate change, and finding deep powder in Utah's Wasatch Mountains and around the world.
© 2014 by the University Press of Colorado
Published by Utah State University Press
You'll want to grab a copy of the book before your next trip to Utah. You can pick it up off Amazon, or support a local Wasatch book store including Dolly's in Park City, as well as The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City.
Only in Utah can you go to college to learn how to find the best powder skiing. Starting this spring, you can take ATOMS1000 at the University of Utah to learn the science behind the secrets. We suspect there will be field trips.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:04|Jim Steenburgh, welcome, thanks for joining us on the Last Chair from Ski Utah.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:00:09|Great to be here.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:10|Jim, it's been great at the resorts. I know you love to be in the backcountry. Have you been able to make any backcountry lines lately?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:00:18|Yah, my shoulder's been keeping me off the backcountry skiing for a couple of weeks now. I'm just about to start going out again, but I have had some pretty good days.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:27|It's really been fun out there. I've really had a good time. By the way, we're recording this the first week of January for anybody listening. And as always, there's always snow in the forecast. And we have an extraordinary forecaster here to help tell us a story. Jim Steenburgh, the author of Secrets of The Greatest Snow on Earth. And before we get into the details of the weather and the snow and so forth, Jim, how did you make your way to Utah? Where did you grow up and what initiated your passion for winter sport?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:00:57|Yeah, I grew up in upstate New York, in the southern Adirondack Mountains. And so, you know, my dad was doing a lot of hiking and we started doing a lot of cross country skiing when I was a kid. And that's what got me really interested in the weather, because the weather in the Adirondacks is awful, especially if you want good skiing. So I got really excited about being able to forecast winter storms. So, you know, I got my undergraduate at Penn State. That was a colossal disaster from a skiing standpoint, but a great place to go to school. And then I did my Ph.D. at the University of Washington, which was great because I could ski pretty much all year long and I got really lucky. I got a job offer from the University of Utah and I came here and I've been here ever since. It's an incredible place to live. The skiing is close. And, you know, even the summers in Utah are fantastic.
Tom Kelly: |00:01:43|So where were their days at Penn State where you were saying, why didn't I go and go to school in Utah?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:01:49|Yeah, quite a few, actually. Penn State was a fun place to go to school. But from a ski standpoint, it was pretty, pretty difficult. I would basically, you know, bolt home for spring break in winter break and ski every day I could.
Tom Kelly: |00:02:04|Growing up, did you have any experience skiing in the western mountains?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:02:09|Not really my first trip to the western United States, my dad and I came to Utah when I was a freshman in college. So that was my first experience, skiing in Utah and skiing in the western United States. And, you know, we ski at five different resorts. We based out of Salt Lake City.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:02:27|But one of the best days I had was when I took a powder lesson at Alta and I had my first real deep powder ski experience in the western United States. During that class, I think it snowed about 18 inches. It was a bluebird day. And that, you know, that pretty much meant I was definitely going to be moving here someday.
Tom Kelly: |00:02:47|That's amazing. It is. I mean, I remember my first experience. I grew up in Wisconsin, so I had less vertical than you did out in New York and probably a good amount of snow, but not as much. But I remember my first experience and coming out to the western mountains and coming out to Utah in particular. And I think it was I think it was probably in 1973 or so, but there was a massive storm over the Christmas holiday that closed the Cottonwood Canyons. So there was so much snow. And I think you may even know some of the historical dates of those big snows from back then.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:03:22|Yeah, there was a big event, I think it was in 73, I don't know if it lines up perfectly. There's one I remember going through and I forget the date, where they actually shot, you know, one of the big guns, maybe was a 75 millimeter howitzer, from the dock at Snowbird. You know, something that could never happen today. But, yeah, I mean, there's some events.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:03:44|And of course, the canyon used to close for very long stretches early, early in the day, back in the day before, we had a lot of good avalanche control work being done there. The early days of the canyon would get close for days at a time. Today, it's much better. But still, there's times when Mother Nature wins the battle, at least for short stretches.
Tom Kelly: |00:04:04|So tell us a little bit about the role that you have at the University of Utah.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:04:09|At the University of Utah, I'm a university professor, so I teach classes in weather forecasting, something we call synoptic meteorology. I teach mountain meteorology classes and I'm teaching a brand new class in the spring called Secrets of The Greatest Snow on Earth, which is basically all about atmospheric and snow science for skiers. It's a pretty exciting class to put together. And then I also have a pretty good research program and we spend a lot of our time looking at winter storms and trying to improve their prediction. So it's great for a snow lover like me to be able to live somewhere where I can ski a lot, but also where I can do great research.
Tom Kelly: |00:04:45|So, Jim, you mean a student can actually take a course now for university credit on The Greatest Snow on Earth
Jim Steenburgh: |00:04:53|That's right. AMOS 1000 at the University of Utah. It's called Secrets of The Greatest Snow on Earth. It's a general education science class can be taken by anybody at the university. And it can also be taken through our continuing education class, our continuing education program if you're not a University of Utah student.
Tom Kelly: |00:05:11|I've got to check this out. Let's talk a little bit about the book and what you had been skiing out here for some years. This was your home. The mountains are your passion. What gave you the impetus to write the book about The Greatest Snow on Earth?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:05:26|Well, it's really a process. You know, if you if you ride share this with people all the time and then they find out you're a meteorologist, they start asking you a lot of questions sometimes about, you know, if it's snowing right then and there, how much snow are we going to get or if it's not snowing, when's the next storm going to come? But I'd also get lots of questions like, you know, is Utah snow really the greatest on earth? You know, I had some pretty good insights on that and other topics. I was constantly getting questions on, you know, on the chairlift or on the skin track in the backcountry. And so I finally hit me. You know, I could write a whole book around all this. And so that's what I did.
Tom Kelly: |00:05:58|It was amazing. You know, what I really loved about the book is the research that went into it, all of these amazing factoids. When and where were the biggest storms? What's the average snowfall? I mean, you have a lot of data in there.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:06:10|You know, that's what I think about all the time. I'm trying to find powder like everybody else. The only advantage I have is, you know, I'm a meteorologist, so I can look at all the computer forecasts and I can try to get a handle on, you know, where we're going to get the snow in a given storm or when the next storm is coming. So the idea behind the book was to provide some insights into that.
Tom Kelly: |00:06:31|You know, this is a little bit off the path. But do you get a sense that today's meteorologist, the people who are really getting into these micro forecasts, are becoming more and more popular with outdoor recreational enthusiasts?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:06:47|Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you look at a company like Open Snow Dot com, you know, where they're providing detailed weather forecast for skiers. You know, I think they're putting out a good product. But, you know, more the key to all of that is our computer models keep getting better and better and better and more and more detailed and more and more accurate. You know, we're no they're not perfect. But the forecasts today are so much better than they were 15 or 20 years ago that you can now have a, you know, a lot more reliability in terms of anticipating the next storm.
Tom Kelly: |00:07:15|We had Evan Thayer from open snow on the podcast a year ago and had him on a webinar presentation just a few weeks ago. And it's fun to talk to him and guys like you who are able to assimilate this data to make it easier for us who are looking for that deep powder stash as to how to best find it and when it's going to appear.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:07:39|Yeah, that's actually an important skill to have as a meteorologist, we call it learning how to sip from the fire hose. The fire hose is just this incredible amount of data that comes in computer forecasts, radar data, satellite data. You know, it's an overwhelming amount of information. And one of the talents you have to have as a meteorologist is a meteorologist knows how to pass through that quickly and really come up with a forecast in a short period of time.
Tom Kelly: |00:08:06|So your book has a lot of detail, a lot of science and, you know, some parts of it. I'm like, my head is just spinning. There's all of this data. But maybe you could distill a few things down for us. And I have a really simple question: what is snow?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:08:27|That's actually a hard question to answer, because I've worked on snow so much I want to get into a lot of detail. At its simplest, you know, it's just basically, you know, snowflakes is one example. You know, this is a pure snowflake or pure ice crystal is kind of an interesting thing. It actually grows not from water freezing, but from water vapor condensing directly into solid ice. When you look at, for example, the beautiful six armed Alta Snowflake, for example, the way a snowflake like that grows, a snowflake like that is called a dendrite and a way of dendrite like that grows is from water vapor condensing directly into ice. So it never actually becomes a liquid. Real snowflakes can have some part of them that has come from liquid water freezing into ice. We call that rhyming. But, yeah, these dendrites are really quite interesting in how they grow.
Tom Kelly: |00:09:25|So there are different types of snowflakes. I know that as a kid, I learned that no two snowflakes are exactly alike. Can you describe the differences between different types of flakes and different types of snow or the white stuff that falls from the heavens?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:09:41|Yeah, definitely. You have with snowflakes. The shape that a snowflake assumes depends on the temperature and the humidity. And so you get different shapes of snow crystals depending on what the temperature and the humidity are. Sometimes they form needles or columns. Sometimes there are these dendrites. There's different types of dendrites. There's stellar dendrites and different types of these dendritic crystals. And so the types of snowflakes you see are really dependent on the temperature and humidity where the snowflake grew.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:10:08|And of course, snowflakes are falling. So they're experiencing different temperatures and humidities as they fall. And that's why you have such diverse, different types of snowflakes in a given storm. And those are the pure snowflakes. And then in a real storm, all kinds of wild things can happen because clouds. Ironically, I have even when they're below freezing, some of the water in these clouds has not frozen and we call that supercooled liquid water. So the cloud droplets aren't frozen yet, but when they run into a snowflake, they freeze on contact. And the extreme example of this, when you get lots of cloud droplets hitting snowflakes is they form graupel, the freezing of these liquid droplets on the snowflake form, something called graupel, which is like a styrofoam ball. And if you've ever skied Alta on a good day when it's graupelling a lot, it's really great skiing. It's higher density snow, but it's really smooth and fast and fun to ski on. And I sometimes tell people I would take a graupel storm over a powder storm sometimes. So it is where we get all kinds of different snow, different densities, different water contents. Mother Nature just throws a lot into these winter storms to give us the storms in the types of snow we get.
Tom Kelly: |00:11:23|Graupel is a fascinating thing. And I know that kind of when it starts, it's pelting you in the face and you're like, oh, man, this is going to be miserable. But a little bit of graupel on a nice hard surface is really fun.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:11:33|Yeah, absolutely. I mean, especially in steep terrain, it's just a lot of fun to ski on. I can remember when I lived in Seattle, some of the best ski days I had were days. It graupelled all day long and it was just a lot of fun to ski.
Tom Kelly: |00:11:48|Let's talk a little bit about the impact of elevation and those of us who live out here. And I'm sure the visitors who've come to Utah when you're climbing up big or little Cottonwood Canyon and you're gaining elevation, you're going up Parley's Canyon to Park City. You watched the thermometer in your car and it's dropping little by little as we gain elevation. And that's understandable. How does that impact the type of snow that is falling and hitting the ground at different elevations?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:12:18|Yeah, there's a number of different ways. One, of course, depends on the temperature of the storm. We do get storms here where it's raining in the valley and it's snowing at the ski resorts. So one thing that can happen is you can ascend up through what we call the transition zone or the melting layer on average in the central Wasatch. The snowfall, annual snowfall increases of about one hundred inches for every thousand feet that you go up. So as you go up, for example, little Cottonwood Canyon, you're down at the mouth of the canyon, you're at 5,000 feet. And then you drive up to say, Snowbird, where you're at 8,000 feet. The increase in the average annual snowfall is about three hundred inches. And of course, once you get to about mid Mount Snowbird, you're up to 500 inches for the annual, but it's about one hundred inches for every thousand feet you go up. So in terms of finding powder and that sort of thing, there's a lot of storms or altitude really makes a difference. There are occasionally storms, we sometimes call these upside down storms, that actually produce more snow on what we call the east bench of the Salt Lake Valley, which is kind of like right up against the base of the Wasatch than it does at the highest elevations. Those happen maybe once or twice a year. Those are always the real disappointing storms for skiers. You know, you got 15 inches at your hotel or at your house and and you get up to the mountains and there's five or six. But those are the exception, not the rule.
Tom Kelly: |00:13:40|You know, with the elevation in mind, is it a big factor for resorts, skiers to look at different parts of the mountain that might be a little bit higher elevation? Is that going to generally give them a better opportunity of finding good snow?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:13:57|Well, you know, it's complicated. I always think about it in terms of where is the snow falling? I mean, there are times when you think about the Wasatch Range and the ski resorts that we have here, you know, there are times when Powder Mountain and Snowbasin, Nordic Valley, that area gets more snow than the Cottonwoods. There's other times when the Cottonwoods get more snow, certainly a northwesterly flow of storms, for example, the cottonwoods tend to get more snow than the northern Wasatch and places like Powder Mountain and Snow Basin. Then there are occasionally storms where the Wasatch Back, Park City, Mountain Resort and Deer Valley get more snowfall. And those are oftentimes storms where the flow is either southerly or maybe even southeasterly at low levels so that the windward slopes of the Wasatch actually reverse in the areas that you think are going to get the most snow actually done. So I think more about that the storm characteristics over altitude, unless it's a warm storm and I'm worried about rain.
Tom Kelly: |00:15:00|Cool. So let's talk a little bit about the term The Greatest Snow on Earth. And historically, this was a phrase that was theoretically conceived by a journalist back in the 60s. I believe skiers for years have been coming to Utah and have been experiencing this great snow. But you decided to do the analysis and write the book about The Greatest Snow on Earth in scientific terms. How does Utah. Rank in terms of being The Greatest Snow on Earth.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:15:35|Yeah, I often tell people there's not a scientific test for The Greatest Snow on Earth. It's in the eye of the beholder. I don't think there's any doubt, though, that Utah has some of the greatest snow on earth, at least in the Cottonwoods where it snows a lot. I think there's really three kinds of key ingredients for great powder skiing or a great powder skiing climate. One is it has to snow a lot. You know, you have to be at places that get a lot of snowfall. And that's one of the things is it's unique about Utah. We're in the interior western United States, where the snow is relatively dry. But still, when you go up to Alta, it snows over five hundred inches a year on average. So it's a very snowy place that gets high-quality snow. Second of all, we get lots of what I call these Goldilocks storms. If you get storms that produce 50, 60, 70 inches of snow and a chunk, that's not really good for powder skiing. It's too much snow. It's too dangerous. The avalanche danger is too high. On the other hand, if you get less than 10 inches, oftentimes you're skiing on the underlying snow surface and you're not getting real flotation. So you want lots of these Goldilocks storms that are, say, between 10 and 20 inches in size where you get good flotation, but they're not behemoths. And we get lots of those here. Our climatology is good for that. And then the third thing is how the storm is kind of stacked and what you want is storms that are maybe relatively warm and produce higher density snow to start and then the snow gets drier with time so that the latest snow sits on top. That's actually the best situation for ski floatation. The worst situation is to have it warm at a time and have the snow get higher density with times with the highest density, snow sits on top. But Utah's climatology, especially in the Cottonwood Canyons, is really biased towards lots of pretty good powder days.
Tom Kelly: |00:17:21|I think a lot of us laypersons and skiers, of course, we look at the water content of the snow. We have heard the terms like Sierra Cement and we've heard the term champagne powder. How big a factor is the humidity and the moisture content of the snow in terms of creating quality powder skiing?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:17:42|Yeah, it's a critical part of it. But I oftentimes tell people it's not the average that matters during a storm and how it changes with time. So let's take Alta as an example. Average water content of snow at Alta is about eight point four percent. What that means is if you were to take, say, 13 inches of snow to average inches of snow at Alta, it would melt down to about an inch of water. So for every 13 inches of snow, there's about an inch of water in it. The rest of it's air. So out of the average water content, that's not exceptionally low, for example, if you go to Colorado, places like Steamboat on average, they get lower water content snow than Alta. But what we get into is a lot of snow, No. One, and we get a lot of these storms, again, that start off higher density, maybe 10 percent, 11 percent water content, and then transition towards the end of the storm to something like seven or maybe six or five or even four percent water content. That's really the secret to great potter skiing because it really helps the skis flow the best powder days I've had or in storms like that, when we get lots of low density snow like, say, 20 inches of four percent, you know, the skiing is still fun, but the flotation is just not quite as good, if I can. Just that Ed LaChapelle, you know, is a famous avalanche researcher, did a lot of pioneering work at Alta. He always used to say that the best powder skiing is not in the driest snow, but in snow with enough body for good flotation for the running ski. And I thought that summarizes it pretty well.
Tom Kelly: |00:19:14|I'm going to take you out of the meteorological aspects of this for just a minute. I'm just wondering how much of an impact is the type of ski that you're riding in, different types of powder?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:19:27|Yeah, that matters a lot. You mentioned something about 1973. You and I are both old school. Enough that I spent a lot of time skiing on two hundred and four to two hundred ten centimeter skis that were pretty narrow and pretty stiff, you know, in the 80s when I was doing most of my skiing. If you go back and watch ski movies from that era, you know, and you look at a movie like Blizzard of Aahhh's or something like that, and people are skiing on narrow slalom or giant slalom or even downhill racing skis, it's a totally different world today. Skis are more diverse. They're wider. It's so much easier to ski and powder. It's incredible.
Tom Kelly: |00:20:06|I remember back to that time period and if I can recall correctly, I think my powder skis were my K2 Threes, which I got because they were a little bit softer and they were probably at least two or four to five. I can't even imagine doing that today.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:20:24|Yeah, I can remember skiing on a ski called the K2. I was the unlimited VO, which was like a detuned slalom ski. That was the idea of an all mountain ski back in the 80s. Today, it's incredible. An incredible diversity of skis out there for all kinds of conditions. It's amazing. And, you know, for backcountry skiing to the equipment's incredibly light. So it's really a great time to be a skier.
Tom Kelly: |00:20:49|Yeah, it is amazing. We've got so much good equipment and from the resort side, so many great opportunities at resorts with the lift designs and the mountain management that we see out there today. It's really changed quite a bit since those days of old. Let's let's kind of move around the Wasatch a little bit and talk about the microclimates that we see. Those of us who spend a lot of time in the mountains know that you can be on one peak at Deer Valley and it's going to be a completely different weather system a mile over at another peak at Deer Valley or Park City, in the same in the cottonwoods, it can be different between big and little cottonwood. Talk about the topography that we have and how that impacts the weather systems coming in and bringing us this great powder.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:21:34|Yeah, I'll talk first about the Cottonwoods. You know that it's interesting that the Wasatch Mountains around the Cottonwoods are kind of different than they are elsewhere. The Wasatch Mountains in general is kind of what is called linear or north south running ridge, especially up around Snowbasin. If you drive the Snowbasin from Salt Lake City or Ogden and you take Interstate eighty four, you know, you just drive a few miles through the canyon there and you go from one side of the Wasatch to the other, you know, there may maybe 10 a few a 10 kilometers or a few miles across and that's it. And they're very linear. But when you get down in the central Wasatch around the cottonwoods, all of a sudden the mountains get a little bit wider, but they get quite a bit wider. And that's important. They also get higher. You know, the mountains around Snowbasin are a little under 10,000 feet high, but the mountains around little Cottonwood, the ridges that flank little Cottonwood are predominantly above 10,000 feet. And in many places at or above, just above 11,000 feet. So this creates this kind of island of high terrain around the Cottonwoods and especially around Little Cottonwood. And what that means is it doesn't really matter what direction the flow comes from. It has to rise over that terrain and that's good for producing snow. And that's one of the reasons why the Cottonwoods get so much snow, especially little.
Tom Kelly: |00:22:58|And then what happens when those storms and I'm looking at the typical westerly flow, what happens to those storms once they get over the Wasatch and on the other side, how does that impact us, for example, in Park City and Sundance?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:23:13|Yeah, so interesting there. Say the flows from the, say, the West or the southwest or the northwest so that the west face of the Wasatch is facing the flow. What happens there is that the flow is impinging on the mountains. It gets forced upward. When air rises, it cools. And that's why you get condensation and you get snowfall production. But once you get across the Wasatch Crest, across the Park City Ridgeline, the air there starts to sink. And so when you think about the snow that falls in Park City in a lot of storms, that snow is actually being generated well upstream, say, over the Park City Ridgeline or over the high terrain near the cottonwoods. It's being carried downstream and it's falling out and we call this spillover. So you get the spillover in Park City, but in a lot of storms, it's just not as productive as it is on the windward side. And that's one of the reasons why snowfall on the Park City side is lower than it is, say, in the cottonwoods.
Tom Kelly: |00:24:08|A lot of us who are neophyte forecasters of sorts, we look at lake effect. We like to talk about lake effect and say, wow, that storm is coming off the Great Salt Lake. How real is lake effect snowfall here in Utah?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:24:22|Yeah, it's real. It's not as important, though, as people think it is. An average lake effect contributes about five percent of the total snowfall in the cottonwood canyons each year. On average. Some years it's more. Some years it's less. But, you know, if you were to take a place like SnowBird or Alta, I would say probably about 50 inches of their snowfall every year comes from the lake. People think it's a lot higher than that. Most people that I talked to, but it's not as big as people think. On the other hand, an interesting aspect of lake effect is it's actually most productive. The lake produces the most lake effect in the fall in October and in November and early December. So it is really important for getting the ski season going. You know, if you get a 15 inch lake effect storm in November, 15 inches is really valuable in November to start building the snowpack. So it's important, but not as important as people think it is.
Tom Kelly: |00:25:21|When you were growing up in upstate New York, you would see that with storms coming off the lake and coming out of the Tug Hill plateau.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:25:30|Yeah. So Tug Hill Plateau is actually downstream of Lake Ontario and it gets the most intense snowstorms in the world in all likelihood. I mean, a lot of people are surprised. Upstate New York, it can really nuke in that particular area. When we did a field program there a few years ago and I think we had four storms with a peak snowfall rate of over four inches an hour. And one of my graduate students used to be a ski patroller, Alta, and she commented that she never saw snow as hard as she saw snow on the Tug Hill plateau. It can really dump there.
Tom Kelly: |00:26:06|But you don't have the mountains, they don't have the mountains.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:26:08|I mean, there's a little ski resort there. I try to say my first Western U.S. powder day was at Alta, but my first deep powder days were actually a small ski resort called Snow Ridge on the east side of the Tug Hill Plateau. I think they have four hundred and fifty vertical feet, but I ski there are a couple of times when there was a solid 18 inches of lake effect.
Tom Kelly: |00:26:28|Let's not let that secret out, right? Yeah, yeah. Let's go down to southern Utah. Brian Head, as an example, and people sometimes don't think about that, but the pretty good size mountains down there, is the weather system there similar or because it's further south, are there other factors impacting the snowfall?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:26:48|Yeah, they are a little more reliant on what we call kind of the southern storm track. You know, there's a tendency in the western United States for a lot of storms to track through the Pacific Northwest. And then there's also a tendency for storms to track across the southwest. Brian Head and southern Utah in general is more reliant on this kind of southern storm track than the Wasatch are. As a result, their climatology is a little different. You know, there's years where they may have above average snowfall in northern Utah or vice versa.
Tom Kelly: |00:27:23|So we're with Jim Steenburgh, author of Secrets of The Greatest Snow on Earth. We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back to talk a little bit about how do you get rid of all this snow when it's all over the highways. We'll be right back.
Tom Kelly: |00:27:55|And we're back with Jim Steinberg, author of Secrets of The Greatest Snow on Earth. And Jim, one of the sections that I really loved in the book was you talking about what do we do with all this snow and how does it impact things around us? And while as skiers and snowboarders we're happy with as much snow falling is as the heavens want to send down, but somebody has to get it off the highways and off the buildings and everywhere else. Can you go back in time? A little bit back to the 19th century, actually, when mining was a big deal in the cottonwood canyons and what an impact the snow had on those mines.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:28:35|Yeah, you know, my usual line for people is that especially Little Cottonwood Canyon - it's a very dangerous place if Mother Nature is left to her own devices. So without humans working to reduce the avalanche hazard, you know, Little Cottonwood Canyon is a very dangerous place. There's about 50 avalanche paths that bisect the highway that goes up the canyon. And, of course, you know, when you were a miner in the 1800s, you had to get up that canyon and you were doing mining in avalanche terrain. You know, there was no Utah Avalanche Center there telling them, hey, you need to be careful. And, you know, the town of Alta was pretty much obliterated by avalanches. And there's not an exact count of how many people died from avalanches in the eighteen hundreds, but it's probably over over 100 people.
Tom Kelly: |00:29:24|So the thing that amazes me when you drive up the Cottonwoods, as you say, there are all of these different avalanche chutes, is the job that UDOT, the Utah Department of Transportation, needs to do to get rid of all of that snow. How important is it for you, Dot, and forecasters to be working together to figure that out so that skiers can safely get up those canyons?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:29:48|Yeah, it's absolutely critical. You know, avalanches, there's a thing called the avalanche triangle which tries to emphasize the three most important things for avalanches. And those three things are terrain, snowpack and weather. Right. So weather is a really critical part of avalanche prediction, but also avalanche logistics, being knowing when a storm is coming in, when you're going to be dealing with increasing avalanche hazard and preparing, for example, to shoot the highway in the morning. So, you know, here in Utah, the National Weather Service provides a Little Cottonwood forecast in support of avalanche control work and other safety activities in the Cottonwoods. And of course, UDOT is also, you know, they have forecasters as well that help them prepare for what's coming for the interstates and the highways and the roadways so that they can be removing snow from those areas for visitors who are planning a trip out to Utah this winter or in future years.
Tom Kelly: |00:30:52|What advice do you give them in planning their trip in those days before they fly out to Salt Lake City to look at the weather and gauge, OK, how am I going to get up to the ski area safely? Where do I want to go? Where are the best lines going to be? What are some of the resources they can avail themselves of?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:31:13|Yeah, I mean, well, one of the possibilities is to use Open Snow dot com or Utah ski weather dot com. Utah Ski Weather dot com is run by students at the University of Utah, you know, and let the experts be the ones to kind of guide them. Becoming an armchair forecaster. If you're not in Utah, can be a bit challenging. It takes a while to get used to the meteorology around here. But looking at those forecasts is pretty important. You know, Utah you know, certainly if you're somebody that's thinking about riding at a resort but going out of bounds, you know, you really want to be thinking about looking at what is happening with the snowpack and with avalanches on the Utah Avalanche, whether Avalanche Center website. You know, for me, it's one of those things where I try to look at it every day. So I'm in tune with what's going on. And, you know, the last thing there in that area, too, is, you know, as soon as you leave the resort boundary, it's a different world. And so, you know, that's something we're having some background and having some education can be really important as well.
Tom Kelly: |00:32:14|I know part of the fun of planning a trip and I know this is the way that I approach things is utilizing all the tools that you can to make sure you have that best experience. I'm just one of those guys that just loves to get in and geek out with open snow and other tools. I'll give you an example. And I know this will ring close to home because you've been there, but I had a trip last February to Japan and I decided to go out to the Nagano area where I had been for the 98 Olympics and just do some skiing for a few days at Hoppo One. And I remember watching, you know, Open Snow every day to kind of see how things were falling there. But I've had some amazing snow experiences in Japan. And, you know, just to give us another example, you've spent time over there. What are the snow systems like in a place like Japan?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:33:03|Yeah, Japan is an amazing place, I call it. You know, we talk about Utah snow being The Greatest Snow on Earth. I tell people Japan is the greatest snow climate on Earth. It's an unbelievable place. What happens there is the Sea of Japan is a very large body of water. It's 12 times bigger than Lake Superior, which is the largest great lake. And during the winter there, they get lots of cold air outbreaks over the Sea of Japan, and that produces basically lake effect snow called sea effect snow. And those systems run into the big mountains on the west side of the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, and they produce prolific amounts of snow. The snowiest inhabited place on earth is Sukayu Onsen in the mountains of northern Honshu, the average annual snowfall is six hundred and ninety four inches. And in January they average one hundred and eighty inches of snow, which is about double Alta. So it's the surest bet for deep powder skiing anywhere in the world. The funny thing about Japan, though, is it depends on the storms, but some storms really produce a lot of snow near the Sea of Japan and the snowfall decreases really rapidly as you move inland. So you have to you want to be kind of in the sweet spot. Sometimes these storms produce too much snow and you're better off moving inland to where it hasn't produced quite as much. Other times, if it's not a really big storm, you want to be skiing closer to the Sea of Japan. So that's one of the things that I think about when I've been over there.
Tom Kelly: |00:34:32|You know, I spent my career working in ski racing. And as I think you know, powder snow is the worst thing that can happen to a ski race. But I know with the Olympics there, in 1998, there were some really amazing powder episodes.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:34:45|Yeah, I was at the 98 games. I was an observer of weather support for the Olympics because I was helping to do the weather forecasting for the 2002 Olympics. And I was there a day and I was supposed to see I believe it was the men's super G at Happo One Ski area and it was canceled. And I went up and skied the upper mountain and had one of the best powder days of my life. It was me and two security guards and that was about it skiing that day up there, because everybody's there for the Olympics. They're not actually skiing.
Tom Kelly: |00:35:18|So it was amazing. I had a similar experience in 1993 working at the World Championships up at Shizukuishi near Morioka on the northern part of a main island. And it's this huge volcano where the storms would come in from the Sea of Japan and then the Pacific Ocean and just collide. And we had nothing but powder for two weeks every day.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:35:43|You can get that in Japan. It can just keep coming and coming and coming. And like I said, the snowfall, you know that their snow climate is a lot different from Utah's in Utah. We tend to get storms. You know, every year is a little different. But the average snowfall in December, January, February, March isn't that different from month to month in Japan. It's a really peaked snow accumulation season. It starts coming on in December and then in January, it goes absolutely nuts. And then it hangs on and goes pretty good in February. And then by March, it really starts to taper off. So they get these prolific snowfall totals, but they really come in a very short six to eight week window where it really is nuking.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:28|Let's go back to 2002. And you had mentioned that you worked as a forecaster for the Olympic Organizing Committee. Any interesting stories from those games?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:36:37|Yeah, a lot of what my team did was develop forecast system. So we would develop computer modeling systems that the actual forecasters would use for the Olympics. You know, what I remember most from a forecasting standpoint was actually the closing ceremonies. A lot of people didn't know this, but right before the closing ceremonies, there was a really strong cold front that was bearing down on Rice Eccles Stadium and, you know, the closing ceremonies and the opening ceremonies for the Olympics. You have all these incredible displays that they do. You know, they and they had heated balloons and all kinds of stuff that had very low tolerances for wind. You know, the winds couldn't be more say than five or eight knots. And we had a front bearing down that had behind the front. The winds were blowing like forty five or fifty knots. So we were all fearful about when this front was going to come through. And we forecast it would come through after closing ceremonies. And it wasn't very long after closing ceremonies, maybe a half an hour when this front came in. If it had come in a little bit faster, it would have been a disaster for closing ceremonies. So that's that was one of the things I remember the most.
Tom Kelly: |00:37:48|Well, Mitt Romney, thanks you for that.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:37:50|Yeah. And another thing I got to do, just to tell another story. A quick one is I went to the 2001 Alpine World Championships in St. Anton, Austria, and the morning of the Super G, I went out and took a few laps before the race with a friend of mine who was also there, another meteorologist. And we got on the lift with an Austrian ski instructor and he asked us who is the great American? And we said, Daron Rahlves. And the guy looked at us and said, Never heard of him. Well, an hour or two later, we're at this race and the Austrians are in first and second place. And Daron Rahlves is coming down the course and he crosses the finish line. And there's that brief moment where you're waiting for the time, these results to display on the screen and all of a sudden, boom one Daron Rahlves, USA, he wins the race, the gold medal in the world championships. And my buddy and I look at each other and shout, never heard of them. It was just a great moment in US skiing.
Tom Kelly: |00:38:55|I totally love that story. And having been in that stadium, that day to watch Daron Rahlves beat the Austrians on their home. Snow never heard of him. Good for you, Jim.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:39:07|Yeah, it was a fun experience. And Tom, we didn't know each other at the time. It's too bad. But I remember that night we went to some bar in St. Anton Rahlves came in and clanked beers with everybody and then he quickly left because I think the downhill was still to the car waiting. Go out and have too much fun.
Tom Kelly: |00:39:24|That was an amazing time and it was a real breakthrough for the team as well, and we owned St. Anton there for a few days. So just one thing before we wrap it up with our Fresh Tracks questions, just a little bit of a look into the future. Everyone has thoughts on climate change and what's happening or what's going to happen. As a scientist, what are your thoughts and what do you see and how is this going to impact or is it going to impact the greatest snow on earth?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:39:52|Well, the planet's warming and it's going to continue to warm. We certainly know that that's the case from a science standpoint today. We have good evidence to support that up from multiple, multiple lines of evidence. So, you know, global warming is happening. It's caused by humans. And we are probably committed right now to additional warming for the next, say, two or three decades through about the middle of the 21st century. The real question is, you know, will you know what will happen after that? Because that's strongly dependent on future greenhouse gas emissions, whether or not we continue to burn fossil fuels and that sort of thing. So, you know, global warming is something that's happening is affecting skiing and it's going to continue to affect skiing moving forward. A positive thing for Utah, even though we're going to being affected by it and we're going to be in the future is that our resorts are relatively high elevation. And so we have a little bit more insurance, as I like to see it, for this first wave of global warming and skiing will survive here longer than in other parts of the world.
Tom Kelly: |00:40:59|Well, Jim, thank you for sharing some of your research. The book is Secrets of The Greatest Snow on Earth, and you can get it pretty much anywhere. I just loved reading this. We're going to wrap this up, Jim, with a few simple questions for you just to probe a little bit more into some of your background. So are you ready to go? Sure thing. OK, to kick it off, what's the deepest powder that you've ever skied?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:41:25|I skied at Crystal Mountain in Washington when they had 80 new in 48 hours and 65 new in 24 six. So that was 80 inches of new snow.
Tom Kelly: |00:41:37|So how did you float in that?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:41:39|Not very well. I often tell people that you think this game was great that day, but it was it. First of all, most of the mountain was closed because of avalanche danger. Second of all, I remember we were one of the first people on the chairlift. It took us I can't remember how long just to break trail out to the one slope that was even steep enough to go down. And it was so deep that you really couldn't make any turns. The funny thing is this is a funny thing about Potter. It's too much of a good thing when it snows that much.
Tom Kelly: |00:42:12|Yeah, it certainly can be. My best day was a mid-May day at Snowbird back in the early 90s. And I remember I was skiing with an eight year old friend of ours and she was an amazing skier, fortunately. But we had had 84 inches of snow over the preceding couple of days and it was light as could be. And I remember going down through the trees over in the Gad Valley with her. And it was just an amazing experience.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:42:39|Yeah, I mean, my favorite ski resorts are storm days. I mean, I just love it when it's coming down really hard and it's free refills. Those are for me at the resorts. Those are my favorite days.
Tom Kelly: |00:42:50|So let's say you're just out having a regular old resort day. What's your favorite resort run in Utah?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:42:58|You know, I ski Alta a lot and I really like skiing, you know, like Stone Crusher, High Boy, the local phrase for it. But the High Rustler runs those steep runs that drop right down the face. Those are my favorite runs. And or if it's really blowing hard West Rustler or as we like to call it, West Buffler, when the wind's blowing there, things tend to get buffed out quite a bit and it can be a lot of fun to ski that stuff.
Tom Kelly: |00:43:24|Those are good runs. I mean, coming off Alf's high wrestler, at the end of the day, there's nothing like it. So let's go into the backcountry. Do you have a favorite backcountry line that you're willing to share?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:43:37|Absolutely not.
Tom Kelly: |00:43:40|That's probably the right answer. Yes.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:43:43|Well, I'll say a couple of things about that. I have some places that I like to go a lot, but a lot depends on the weather in the snowpack and the avalanche conditions. So I try not to think about that too much. I try to let the conditions dictate where we ski and kind of and think about it from the standpoint of having options for safety more than anything else. I think the most I'll say the most memorable backcountry run I probably ever had was, skiing, what's known as the Coalpit Headwall and Coalpit Gulch, all the way down from the top of what's North called, I think it's North Thunder Mountain all the way down the Little Cottonwood. It's a very long run. It's about 5,000 vertical feet. It's pretty steep the whole way. And there's even a short rappel that you have to do partway down. That to me is was a pretty fun and exciting run, although I ski better snow elsewhere. Not for the faint of heart. Yeah. I mean, it's not extreme, but it's definitely a long trip to get in there and a pretty adventurous run.
Tom Kelly: |00:44:52|Jim, what's the most unusual weather event that you have been in?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:44:57|Oh, my God, that's a tough one. Well, that's a hard one, I've experienced a lot of amazing storms in part either through skiing or through my work. I'll say one of the more memorable times I've had in my life was when I moved to Seattle for graduate school. I was really excited about skiing someplace where it snowed a lot. Even though the Cascades get heavy snow, they get prolific snowfalls. And the first winter I was there, they didn't get any snow at all in December. And I remember mountain biking in the Cascades in early January, but then it turned on and they got two hundred and seventy inches of snow in three weeks at Snoqualmie Pass. And I was skiing almost every day and every day there was new snow. And for somebody from the East Coast, that was an amazing experience.
Tom Kelly: |00:45:50|You got to love it. So this will be easier. Favorite Utah craft beer.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:45:57|Hmm, that's another hard one. Who do I want to come on so many? That's right. There are so many. I'll put in a plug for my friends at Epic. And I just grab a bunch of stuff there I usually drink. I am actually a fan of porters and they have a smoked porter that I like a lot.
Tom Kelly: |00:46:18|That is a good one. I know that one.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:46:20|Yeah. I mean everything in the craft beer industry seems to be about, about Hops and IPAs and sours and things. But I really and I like IPAs and I like pale ales, but I'm a big Porter fan and so I enjoy their smoked porter. Go big.
Tom Kelly: |00:46:38|I love it. And the last question groomer's glades, bump's or powder.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:46:45|Well, powder for sure. Bump's would definitely be on the bottom of that list. My back is old and aging, so.
Tom Kelly: |00:46:52|It's almost universal. Who wouldn't want power with The Greatest Snow on Earth?
Jim Steenburgh: |00:46:58|Yes, certainly me, that's what I look for.
Tom Kelly: |00:47:00|Jim Steenburgh, thank you for joining us. It's been a delight to talk to you and learn a little bit about the science behind The Greatest Snow on Earth.
Jim Steenburgh: |00:47:07|Thanks, Tom. Great to be here.