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Looking for the best pow days? Fall snow might be your indicator

A woman kneels in the snow in a forest and uses a shovel to dig a hole while holding a red measuring device to measure depth
Mark Stone
University of Washington
University of Washington professor Jessica Lundquist measures a shallow snowpack in the Washington Cascades. She looked at how much snow fell on Jan. 1 and compared it to the peak snowfall during the season.

As colder weather starts to set in for some of the Mountain West region, skiers and snowboarders are on the hunt to see what areas will get snow first. New research is showing that fall snowfall can be a good predictor of what the rest of the season will look like.

At the University of Washington, researchers looked at historical precipitation and temperature data from 2001 to 2022. They measured it with “snow pillows,” which acts a lot like a bathroom scale. It's a metal weight filled with antifreeze that compresses and measures the weight of the snow.

Two women kneel in a field with a plateau in teh background and install a snow pillow, or a white piece of metal
Mark Stone
University of Washington
Jessica Lundquist and Julie Vano from the Aspen Global Change Institute install a snow pillow in Colorado last fall. These snow pillows are a metal weight filled with antifreeze that compresses and measures the weight of the snow.

They looked at how much snow was still on the ground on January 1 to understand what stuck from October, November and December. The researchers then compared that level to the max amount of snow that fell during the entire season.

Researchers found heavy fall snow levels in October through December were good indicators of heavier snow seasons for January through March, particularly in Northeast Utah, Southwest Wyoming, and Northern Colorado. The research, which was published in Geophysical Research Letters last month, also found that the median November temperature was the best predictor of December snowfall.

“There's not a lot of variability from year to year (there),” said Jessica Lundquist, a professor at the University of Washington who helped write the paper. “A lot of the high elevations in the Rockies are actually pretty dependable (with fall snowfall and sticking).”

The amount of snow in the Western United States is based on the storms that come through the jet stream early in the fall in the North and then migrate South through the season, Lundquist said.

“The large-scale atmospheric conditions that are set up to bring storms to a particular area tend to be long lasting,” Lundquist said. “If they're (the storms are) set up in the fall, they're also going to be set up in January, February, March.”

This data isn’t just an indicator of good skiing or snowboarding spots. Lundquist said it’s also important for water managers to evaluate stored water available for the season.

“This (area) is the headwaters of the Colorado (River), and people are making decisions in the fall and early on whether to plant, whether to hire people to harvest, how much water is coming in,” she said. “A lot of it goes down to junior water users who, you know, may or may not get their water allocation in a given year. The more advance notice they have, the more money they can save.”

They couldn’t make good predictions for New Mexico and Nevada because of variations in their weather patterns.

“They're (the states are) pretty warm locations and so it's often not cold enough for any snow that falls to stick,” Lundquist said. “They (will) get the most of their moisture after the first of January. And so a lot can happen in the spring to change those Southern states.”

Lundquist added that warmer temperatures induced by climate change might affect these results in the future, that more areas will be like these Southern states that cannot keep snowpack on the ground in the fall.

“A lot of areas could be more extreme, that more snow in the fall leads to more snow in the winter, less snow in the fall leaves less snow sticking in the winter, which increases our inter-annual variability, which is hard to manage for,” she said.

To watch the snow pillows track measurements in real time and how they compare to the average snowfall for that area, visit the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service National Water and Climate Center website.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.