TAHOE/TRUCKEE — With the Pacific Coast under an El Nino Watch, weather prognosticators are already spinning tales of a potentially stormy winter ahead in 2013. Oceanic and atmospheric observations indicate El Nino conditions are likely to develop this month and continue through the rest of the year. Computer models, however, are evenly split in forecasting a weak or moderate event. It's too early to predict whether this winter's ENSO positive-influenced weather will be wetter or drier than normal, or what regions will be impacted.
Last winter's on-going precipitation deficit changed dramatically when storms in March dumped boat loads of snow on Tahoe resorts, but that surge of moisture only affected last winter's snowfall ranking. It came too late to make up for the financial losses that accompanied one of the driest starting winter seasons in history. Rain and snow are almost always a positive for our regional ecosystems, but when it comes to winter sports like snowboarding and skiing, timing is everything. Virtually all local businesses rely on a prosperous Christmas and New Year's holiday period to help turn a profit during the winter months, but that can't happen unless there is enough snow on the mountains to attract the crowds that fuel our winter tourism. Snowmaking and slope grooming are important tools that help mitigate dry conditions, but there's nothing like a fat snowpack to get the juices flowing.
A little more than a half century ago, Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. These Olympic Games would launch the Tahoe region into the international spotlight for winter sports, but the whole event hinged on natural snowfall. Site preparation for the Winter Olympiad at Squaw Valley took five years and more than $15 million dollars. No previous Olympic host community had ever attempted even a fraction of what organizers put together at Squaw. The only thing they couldn't control was the weather, and without a snowmaking system in place, they were at the mercy of timely Pacific storms to generate a substantial Sierra snowpack.
The weather pattern in late 1959, however, featured persistent high pressure with cold temperatures, but an alarming lack of snowfall. With the eyes of the nation and the world on Squaw Valley and with no Pacific storms in sight, Olympic organizers were getting nervous. American Indians were brought in to perform snow dances, but that failed to generate the needed precipitation. Fortunately, a professional weather forecaster from Southern California named Irving P. Krick was on the payroll. Krick was one of the first widely-known commercial meteorologists in the United States. The U.S. Weather Bureau and American Meteorological Society (AMS) both considered the controversial forecaster a fraud, while others pointed to his long history of accurate predictions and satisfied clients. Krick was also one of the first proponents of using silver iodide particles in cloud seeding to produce precipitation.
Irving Krick had been named the official “weather engineer” for the Winter Olympics, in part because he had provided a forecast for February 1960 two years earlier, in 1958, specifically singling out that the second half of the month was the best time to hold the Games. He also promised if mountain snow depths were inadequate, he would come to the valley and produce what was needed. The northern California chapter of the American Meteorological Society, who had tossed Krick out of their organization prior to the Winter Games, notified the Olympic Organizing Committee of their “concern and displeasure” with Krick's appointment. They warned since the rogue weatherman was not a member of the AMS he was not bound by the Society's concept of professional ethics. The AMS called Krick's long-range forecast two years before the Olympics a “scientific impossibility” that did professional meteorology a disservice.
In preparation for the possibility of poor snow conditions, in October 1959 Krick had positioned 20 ground-based cloud seeding generators around Squaw Valley. Conditions in November and December were so dry that Krick fired up the generators only once in November to no avail. When New Year's Day came and went with no luck in the snowfall department, Krick himself was getting a bit nervous. During the second week of January weather patterns began to look more favorable for seeding. As storm clouds moved in, Krick's generators began pumping out clouds of silver iodide particles that drifted into the sky and it began to snow. By Jan. 10, more than 3-and-a-half feet of snow buried the valley floor with 7 feet plus blanketing the upper elevations. Olympic organizers and local residents were both relieved and jubilant. Of course Krick claimed credit for the snow, but cold logic suggests the storms would have arrived with or without his efforts. Despite what appeared to be a remarkable accomplishment, Krick's trouble with the U.S. Weather Bureau continued unabated.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
— Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Mark's new blog at www.tahoenuggets.com.