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51-year Sierra snowfall record shattered

More than 17 feet piled up this month

With less than a week remaining in 2021, part of the Lake Tahoe region broke its record for December snowfall set 51 years ago.


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On Monday, the December snow total at the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab (CSSL) reached 16.5 feet, smashing the 1970 record of 15 feet. Additional snowfall this week brought the December total to 17.5 feet by Wednesday morning.

A new October-December record of 22 feet has also been set, breaking the previous record of 21.7 feet, also from from 1970.

The CSSL is in Soda Springs, California, just a few miles west of Donner Summit. It was built in 1946 by the U.S. Weather Bureau and Army Corps of Engineers and is one of the longest-running manual snow depth reporting stations in the world. Its research focuses on understanding snowpack processes, in addition to maintaining the manual snowpack measurements that have been occurring at the lab, as well as at Donner Summit.

The copious amounts of snow in the Sierra Nevada recently have caused major road closures and hourslong delays on parts of Interstate 80, U.S. Highway 50 and several state highways in the region. By midweek, travel had reopened, with chain controls in place for tractor-trailer and other commercial vehicle drivers.

The weight of the snow, along with the force of 60- to 100-mph wind gusts, knocked down trees and power lines. As of Thursday morning, more than 92,000 customers in California still had no electricity, most of them in the Sierra Nevada.

However, it’s not all bad news.

December’s storms came in “forming a right-side-up snowpack,” Dan McEvoy, regional climatologist for the Western Regional Climate Center, told the Reno Gazette Journal.

Earlier storms were wetter with higher-elevation snow, but then temperatures and snow levels dropped. “That’s good for both water content and avalanche concerns,” McEvoy added.

Runoff from snowmelt flows downhill into lakes and rivers that feed reservoirs of drinking water. Runoff also contributes to irrigation of crops.


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According to a CSSL tweet Wednesday, the site has already received 70% of its average annual snowfall.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data as of Thursday morning showed that 86.5% of the Sierra Nevada was covered in snow. This is compared to just 11.1% a month ago.

The deep snow will also help keep the snowpack for area ski resorts in good shape, even if the region runs into a dry spell. But McEvoy cautioned that it’s possible for drought conditions to resume.

“If I had to emphasize one point, it’s that the drought’s not over,” McEvoy said. “We need the storms to continue through the winter.”

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.