Adam Jensen: Reading the Sierra winter’s tea leaves |

Adam Jensen: Reading the Sierra winter’s tea leaves

A few years ago I remember getting overly excited about an upcoming storm and its potential for producing a powder day. A friend, a little more grizzled in his Sierra Nevada lifestyle, promptly shut me down with a “I’ll believe it when I see it.” I was little stunned he didn’t share my, likely kind-of-obnoxious, excitement about the impending powder day. But, looking back, I’ve now got a better understanding of what he was talking about.

The weather in the Sierra Nevada is unpredictable. I’ve now seen “storms of the century” fizzle into rain and what was predicted to be a one-inch storm turn into a pillow-dropping powder day. All my more skeptical friend was really getting at was “don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

This unpredictability in the Sierra Nevada can lead to a certain type of mania among snow lovers. Big storms have been attributed to everything from sacrificing ski equipment in the name of Norse gods to increasingly silly snow dances to washing your car. For the latter, the thought goes that if you wash your car it’s inevitable a storm will promptly come and coat the clean finish with a layer of dirty snowmelt.

Three years of drought have made this fall particularly anxiety-filled for snow enthusiasts. Throw in a 60-65 percent chance of an El Niño and its hard to go the grocery store without hearing at least one winter prognostication.

El Niño means a big winter, right? Well, not necessarily. What the phenomenon means for snowfall is anyone’s guess. It’s uncertainty on top of uncertainty. El Niño years often get the reputation as big producers, but the meteorologists I’ve spoken with as a reporter note the pattern is no guarantee for Lake Tahoe, which sits in the middle of the southern area of the U.S. that typically gets above-normal precipitation during El Niño events and the northern region that typically gets below-average snowfall.

The National Weather Service’s most recent winter outlook doesn’t offer much help in terms of easing the uncertainty.

“The (November-December-January) 2014-15 precipitation outlook indicates enhanced probabilities of below-median precipitation for parts of the Pacific Northwest, Northern Rockies, Great Lakes and Ohio Valley,” according to the outlook. “Increased probabilities for above-median precipitation amounts are forecast from Southern California eastward across the southwest, southern plains, and along the Gulf and southern Atlantic coasts northward to include the eastern seaboard to southern New England.”

It’s all enough to drive a skier or snowboarder mad. I try my best to avoid getting too wrapped up in the predictions, but it’s not easy. I just try to remember it’s way early for winter, and we’ve likely got weeks to go before we’re cutting legitimate turns.

At the very least, this weekend sounds promising.

“The forecast remains on track for Halloween,” according to the National Weather Service in Reno. “Gusty winds, rain, and snow are forecast to move into the Sierra and western Nevada. A cold front should pass through the region by Friday evening bringing lower snow levels and much cooler temperatures.”

“Snowfall amounts of 8 to 12 inches are on track for the Sierra above 7,000 feet, with several inches possible in the Tahoe Basin and light accumulations down to 5,000 feet in western Nevada,” the Weather Service adds.

It’s a start. As far as the rest of the winter goes, all you can really do is check the forecast and hope.

I did just wash my car though, just in case.

Adam Jensen is the editor of Lake Tahoe Action. He can be reached at

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