After Record Snowfall, California’s Ski Season Will Extend Into Summer—Is That a Good Thing?
A historic snowpack means some of California’s ski resorts will be open much later this year, but the sheer volume of snow in the western U.S. also presents numerous challenges. Here’s what to know before you go.
Even a climatologist couldn’t have predicted this year’s record-breaking snowpack. For the western region of the United States, this past winter told a story of extremes—and served as a reminder that global warming isn’t all rising temperatures.
This winter, California’s Mammoth Mountain, South Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly and Kirkwood resorts, and, in Utah, hills from Alta and Snowbird to Brighton were slammed with up to over 800 inches of snow, landing them on a growing list of ski resorts breaking records for their largest snowpack in history. Mammoth has extended its ski season at least through July, visitors will still be skiing at Palisades Tahoe on Independence Day, and dozens of other resorts out west are operating for extra weeks and months.
Beyond supporting extended ski seasons that are likely to help bolster the tourism economies of mountain communities, there are other upsides to the historic snowpack. After nearly 20 years of drought conditions in western Colorado and California, the melt is refilling some critically low main reservoirs. California just reported its lowest level of drought since the drought began, though groundwater reserves are still recovering.
Additionally, “the heightened snow levels will create perfect watersport conditions in Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River for recreational water sports,” says Ben McDonald of Reno Tahoe tourism authority. And while the extra moisture may cause dry grass to grow longer than in drought years, making it easier to ignite as it dries out in the summer heat, the snow accumulation will delay the wildfire season in certain areas, says Kim Wells, from the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
Why has there been so much snow in California?
After years of drought and waiting for big powder, how did the western U.S. hitch a wild ride from zero to pile up? California had been headed toward a fourth-year drought with a blocking high-pressure system, which remained stationary, preventing weather systems from moving through and limiting storms from dropping in, when the system weakened and history was made. Round after round of storms from the Pacific, the Gulf of Alaska, and renewed rises on rivers furthered flood impacts, building a generational snowpack in the Sierra Nevada.
“The strong storms in January were not consistent with a La Niña event and may have been influenced by sub-seasonal drivers of climate variability coupled with a weakening of La Niña around Christmas,” says Califonia’s state climatologist, Michael Anderson, who works for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. “This is an unusual year and fits the narrative of climate change from the perspective of a warmer world that has more energy for storms to work with and as a result, new extremes can be experienced.”
What we know for sure is that the winter of 2022–2023 will go down in the books. “The massive amount of snowfall is equal parts challenging, but we are looking forward to the best spring conditions we’ve ever seen,” says Lauren Burke of Mammoth Mountain.
Skiers and snowboarders are elated. Ecologists are hoping the historic snowfall will help delay wildfires following a prolonged drought. But it’s not all downhill from here.
The drawbacks to the historic snowfall
In California, Utah, Oregon, and Colorado, as much as 70 feet of snow has also created costly and dangerous hurdles. “This much snow, as much as skiers and snowboarders love it, certainly presents its challenges, and those challenges start becoming exponentially more difficult as the snow piles up,” says Michael Reitzell, president of Ski California.
Flooding could delay hiking season and the massive snowfall is already interrupting wildlife migration, leaving deer starving to death in Colorado and Utah without enough grass to eat.
In northwest Colorado, motorists are being cautioned to watch for wildlife, now weak from lack of access to fresh grass in areas covered by snow, low on calorie reserves from the fall, and migrating away from the deep backcountry powder along the highway corridor. Elk, deer, and pronghorn are already effectively starving. “We are beginning to see deaths among those species in areas of the state where this is most severe,” says John Livingston, of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Utah expects to reduce the number of hunting licenses and is implementing emergency feeding to address deer loss in the north.
Meanwhile, avalanches are in full effect. In Little Cottonwood Canyon on April 6, one barreled across the highway into Utah’s Snowbird Resort, blocking access to the mountain, temporarily closing trails, and triggering a shelter-in-place order that continues within the resort for guests who opted to stay. As of April 13, mountain operations were limited and the road remained closed. In California, a section of U.S. Route 395, running between Mammoth and Tahoe, as well as State Route 168, closed in March from an avalanche, with additional avalanches and warnings throughout the western mountain regions as temperatures begin to warm.
For the Sierra Nevada range, where the University of California Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Lab recorded the most snow since 1952 this spring, simply clearing the roads, digging out a chairlift, or blowing a 40-foot snow tunnel out the front door has taken its toll on residents, resorts, and snow removal companies.
“Driving through town is like a maze, snow is approaching the third story on many buildings, street signs are covered, and locals have to shovel down to their roofs,” says Mammoth’s Burke.
The hope is that temps will warm gradually this spring, preventing water from rushing down the mountainside all at once and overflowing streams, creeks, rivers, and other low-lying areas. “Our waterways are already filling up,” says Reitzell.
If the area conversely sees a rapid melt, with high water content in the snowpack, floods could seriously harm schools of aquatic wildlife, interrupt waterways that landowners rely on, or worse.
“Flooding can cause significant damage to property and infrastructure and can even threaten lives,” adds Wells. Flash floods could pick up heavy sediment, taking down anything in their path, particularly in areas with burn scars from recent wildfires.
Those with plans to head to Tahoe this summer should take some added precautions, advises Reno Tahoe’s McDonald. With snow covering the mountains and potential flooding that could create higher water levels with faster flows, the accumulation “will definitely impact the hiking and mountain biking seasons at upper elevations and the Truckee River may not be safe [without a guide] for inexperienced kayakers and tubers until late June to early July,” he says.