words by Evan Thayer
If you had asked me last year, in 2022, if I would ever see a Utah ski season as good as 2010-11, I would probably say “no.” For over a decade, that season stood head and shoulders above the competition, statistically and experientially, as the best I had lived through. If you weren’t in Utah for that season or just don’t remember the specifics, allow me to enlighten you. It was a season that featured an early start, followed by a seemingly endless procession of cold, medium-sized storms that didn’t stop until the first week of June. June! When all was said and done, the base depth at Alta-Collins station in Little Cottonwood Canyon easily topped 200” with an astonishing 75” of snow-water equivalent at neighboring Snowbird. It was a powder lover’s dream – the perfect season! Or so I thought…
Along comes Winter 2022-23, and it was better. It snowed even more. The storms may not have lasted as long into the spring as in 2011, but the storms were bigger and more widespread throughout the state. By its closing date, Alta Ski Area had received a season total of 903” snow. That statewide average snowpack at all snow telemetry (Snotel) stations was 30” of liquid, beating the previous record (1983) by about 15%. It was, without a doubt, the snowiest year in Utah’s recorded history. In case you missed it, watch the season recap video below.
Now that a new benchmark has been set, I am not going to fall into the same trap – making the assumption I will never see a better season. After all, records are made to be broken, right? As absurd as the numbers last season were, there is still a chance we could better them in the future. What are the chances we see a better season in Utah? Could it happen as soon as this year? Let’s take a look.
Let’s start with the numbers. Here is a graph of the statewide snowpack’s six deepest years:
We have data going back to 1980 for this – 43 years. You can see the 2022-23 season peaked well above the next highest (1982-83). Thanks to the tireless work of the NRCS here in Utah, we also have an estimate from before the remote sensor era for the 1951-52 season. In that winter, it’s estimated that the statewide average snowpack peaked at 28.8” of liquid. Which is 1.2” or 4% shy of last year’s peak snowpack. This means that in more than 70 years of data, we have no comparable season.
Alta Ski Area was not only the snowiest spot in Utah last year, but it also maintains extensive records of snowfall by season, both at the ski area itself and at the Alta-Guard UDOT station in the Town of Alta at the base. The ski area famously recorded 903” of snow from mid-October through April of last year. This number is well above any other year dating back to 1980:
Almost 150 inches more than the next biggest year according to their records! Given that they have records dating back 43 seasons, that is quite an impressive feat. The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) has records dating back even further at the Alta-Guard Station, across the street from Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge in the Town of Alta. The Alta-Guard Station did not do as well, relative to previous winters, as the ski area or the state as a whole.
In fact, there were three other seasons that had more snowfall reported than 2022-23. Part of the discrepancy is that this doesn’t count the October snowfall that fell. It’s also at a lower elevation where snow levels and snow density could impact total accumulation.
I have spent too much time over the past week (and even the past few months) trying to wrap my head around the numbers and just how likely I am to ever see anything like it again. It is a difficult thing to put a number to because every location is different and while most locations broke records, they all did so by varying degrees. Based on what I see, I think last year’s numbers have a recurrence interval (return period) of somewhere between 50 and 100 years. That means we can expect to see a season like that every 50-100 years. The good news, is that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to wait 50-100 years. As we saw in the early 1980s, when we had back-to-back-to-back huge years, it is absolutely possible for us to have near-record seasons consecutively.
Mathematics would tell us that there is between a 1 and 2% chance that this winter will be as big, or bigger, than last winter. While it may not be “likely” per se, my old friend Lloyd Christmas would say:
As for this season’s actual forecast, I’ll be the first to tell you that anything can happen. However, the latest NOAA winter forecast has shifted toward higher chances of above-normal precipitation.
If you were here to experience the glory of last season, then give yourself a pat on the back because you experienced something that truly could be a “once-in-a-lifetime” event. However, I learned my lesson after 2010-11. While I’m not going to expect to see something better, I’ll always believe it’s possible. When it does happen, you better believe I’ll be ready to ski it.
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