TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. - This week's impressive snowstorm wasn't a record breaker for the month of October, but frigid temperatures brought decent accumulations to Truckee and the Tahoe Basin. The Gulf of Alaska storm marked a dramatic change from the Indian summer weather that locals and visitors had been enjoying since Labor Day weekend.
The storm's origin in the northern latitudes tapped very cold air for this early in the season, but when compared to the minus 6 degrees Fahrenheit recorded at Squaw Valley on Oct. 30, 1971, we got off easy. Low freezing levels during this recent cold front drove storm totals near the Sierra Crest to nearly 3 feet.
October snowstorms do't necessarily harbinger heavy winters. Recall last October when about 2 feet fell at Squaw Valley early in the month and everyone got their hopes up that another bomber winter like 2011 was on the way? After that early shot, the region went into a tailspin, at one point setting records for record high temperatures and the longest string of consecutive dry days since 1961. In fact, early snow can lead to a dry season like water year 2001, when Squaw Valley picked up 44 inches in early October. Boreal Mountain Resort fired up their lifts on Oct. 12, the earliest opening day on record for the ski area, but the winter of 2001 ended up as Reno's driest ever.
Other notable October snowfalls include 1899 when 56 inches buried Tahoe City and 7.4 feet were measured on Donner Pass. More recently, 50 inches of snow fell at the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory in October 2004, with nearly 6 feet in the highest elevations. The 2004 total was the greatest amount for the 10th month since the lab was established in 1946.
Twenty years ago in 1992, the season's first snowfall occurred on Oct. 29, with a total of 17.1 inches recorded at the Snow Lab near Donner Pass. That year, the region was in the grip of a six-year drought and Tahoe-Truckee residents were praying fervently for snow. Lake Tahoe was on its way down to 6,220.2 feet in elevation, the lowest level in recorded history. For three years the Truckee River had limped along at one tenth of its normal flow. Pyramid Lake, terminus of the Truckee, had fallen 11 feet since 1987. Nevada was turning to dust, waiting for a Washoe Zephyr to blow it away.
With all the dismal news about the lack of water, most people were hoping for a big winter. On Dec. 1, 1992, the National Weather Service issued its forecast predicting drier than normal weather for the upcoming winter. Ironically, just 48 hours after the prediction was released, the first in a series of powerful cold fronts began assaulting the region. The barrage of snowstorms buried the Sierra. At South Lake Tahoe, rangers on Echo Summit recorded nearly 17 feet of snow that month. It was the wettest start to a winter in 10 years.
By the end of December 1992, residents and tourists were wishing the drought was back. Persistent rain, wind and heavy snow caused havoc with air, rail and road travel for holiday travelers. Hotels in Truckee and Tahoe City were overwhelmed. Blinding snow forced officials at (then) Reno Cannon Airport to shut down 80 percent of its flights, stranding 3,000 passengers. Trains were delayed and most major highways were closed. Avalanches had cut electric power to 15,000 people. At Donner Pass, 8.5 feet of snow fell in a four-day pounding. Countless holiday travelers tried to escape the mountains at that point, but Interstate 80 remained closed for three days. The deep snow set off deadly propane tank explosions throughout the Tahoe Basin.
On New Year's Eve, the NWS issued a forecast for more snow. An invigorated jet stream drove storm after storm into the Tahoe region, and by the third week of January the upper mountain snowpack at Squaw Valley was approaching 20 feet. During the first 10 days of February another 11.5 feet of snow smothered Donner Pass, and for the first time since the epic winter of 1983, Southern Pacific Railroad deployed rotary snowplows to the Summit. Ultimately, nearly 42 feet of snow fell at the Snow Lab that winter, ranking it the 13th snowiest since 1946. That season's 83 inches of water went a long way toward mitigating the six-year dry spell.
Despite the NWS forecast for drier than normal conditions in 1993, the winter ended up being a "Drought Buster" and the ninth wettest on record in the Sierra, right after 2011. Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a mild and drier than normal winter for much of the western United States in 2013. Well, you know how those forecasts can go.
- 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.