El Niño pattern showing increased strength in Tahoe region
With more storms in the forecast for next week, the El Niño switch appears to be firmly set in the “on” position for the Tahoe Basin. That has area resorts rejoicing and avalanche forecasters voicing some concern regarding backcountry conditions.
“It’s shaping up to be exactly as the long-range forecasters have said,” Kirkwood and Heavenly Mountain Resort spokesman Kevin Cooper said. “With January setting up like this, Martin Luther King weekend is going to be fantastic. The conditions are the best we’ve seen in years.”
Wednesday’s storm dropped 7 inches of new snow at Heavenly according to the mountain’s website. Kirkwood received 6 inches and Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort reported 11 inches.
An additional storm system Thursday night, Jan. 14, was expected to add 3 to 6 inches of new snow at lake level with the potential for 6 to 12 inches at higher elevations according to Opensnow.com.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 13, South Shore U.S. government SNOTEL snowpack measuring sites were reporting snow-water equivalent rates between 120 and 160 percent of average.
Cooper said that to-date, Kirkwood has received 233 inches of snow for the season — prior to Thursday night’s storm. Heavenly has received 189 inches so far this winter. Both have far exceeded last season totals.
OpenSnow’s Tahoe-based forecaster Bryan Allegretto reported that a storm early next week could bring with it as much as 3 feet above 7,000 feet.
“I’d go out and invest in a snorkel right now,” Cooper said, looking ahead to February and March.
AVALANCHE DANGER ‘considerable’
With Wednesday’s storm and increased snowfall expected Thursday night, Sierra Avalanche Center forecasters raised the backcountry avalanche threat level to “considerable,” a Level 3 on their five-tiered scale.
“It’s a pretty tricky avalanche problem,” Sierra Center forecaster Steve Reynaud said Thursday, “and we will have it for the foreseeable future.”
Recent breaks between storms brought back weaker layers deeper in the snowpack, creating an increased concern for deeper persistent slab slides — caused by the weak layers.
Reynaud said snowfall patterns caused the snowpack to mimic traditionally less-stable Colorado snow. By contrast, weak layers deeper in the snowpack are typically less common in the Sierra Nevada’s maritime snowpack.
“The consequences of these persistent weak layers are much greater,” Reynaud said, describing the potential for larger human-triggered slides. “They don’t just go away overnight. They can be there for weeks or months.”
Thursday’s avalanche forecast described the threat for human-triggered slides as “likely” in wind-loaded areas above and near treeline on northwest, north through southeastern facing slopes. The threat for persistent weak-layer slides was issued for the same points on the compass near and below treeline.
“These problems are not very common in our climate,” Reynaud said, urging backcountry travelers to use extra caution through the weekend and into next week. “I’d expect the avalanche danger to continue the same or even spike upwards.”
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