Utah will likely set historic snow record Friday

Mar 23, 2023, 8:59 PM | Updated: Mar 24, 2023, 1:21 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Thursday was on track to make history in Utah, with the snowpack ready to inch past a 40-year-old record. It all came down to a tenth of an inch.

From his computer at the National Resources Conservation Service office Thursday, Jordan Clayton pointed out a graph with a staggering black line representing 2023 soaring above lines of various colors representing past years.

The graph showed data at a single Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) site that measures the snow water equivalent (SWE) in the snowpack. That’s how much water would be left if all the snow melted.

At this site, the 2023 maximum reached far above previous seasons.

“This is really just going crazy. This is the previous maximum– you can see we’re way outside of the previous maximum if I zoom in on this,” Clayton said, pointing to the screen. “This is the most we’d ever seen at that particular site.”

The Utah Snow Survey, which Clayton supervises, gathers data from 138 SNOTEL sites across Utah. The data is calculated into the statewide SWE average.

He pointed out how in 1983, the biggest year on record since they began collecting SNOTEL data in 1980, the SWE average was 26 inches.

“We really needed a big year,” said Jim Steenburgh, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah.

“I’m ready to call this winter an all-time. We’ve had an incredible amount of snow. It’s been statewide. It’s been almost nonstop for the whole winter.”

Steenburgh tracks the numbers daily. So, he wasn’t surprised Thursday to see the snow water equivalent come within a tenth of an inch of the record set back in 1983.

“What I am impressed with though moving forward is that the weather forecast that we can see going out for the foreseeable future still keep us in an active pattern,” he said.

Laura Haskell is the drought coordinator for the Utah Division of Water Resources. She described just how the SNOTEL is this year.

“If all the snowpack melted you would have over two feet of water covering the entire state,” she said.

“We’re calling it a year of opportunity. We really have a chance to make some changes.”

Haskell said the hard part going forward will be making sure all the snow doesn’t disappear too quickly that it leads to flooding or too slowly that the soil soaks it up.

“There’s nothing that seems to be slowing mother nature down,” said Steenburgh, who shares her concern.

As great as the storms have been, he knows if the snow keeps falling for too long it could be a problem down the road.

“I say this as a skier who’s been skiing powder all year and doesn’t really want to stop; We are getting to a time of year where we would like the storms to slow down a little bit and we would like to have a gradual transition through the Spring,” he said.

As of Thursday, Utah sat at 25.9 inches. The numbers are only updated in the morning, Clayton explained. With all the new precipitation that fell Thursday, he could be sure of one thing even without new data to confirm.

“I’m quite confident we’ll be in new record territory tomorrow (Friday),” he said.

He said that daily values are collected at midnight. Once his team arrives in the office in the morning, they start going through the numbers.

Beyond likely beating out 1983, he explained that this year might top anything Utah’s seen in seven decades.

“If we go all the way back from before there were SNOTEL sites, it looks like we would have to go all the way back to 1952 to see a bigger snowpack year than this year,” he said.

Clayton said that the snowpack provides Utah with 95% of its water. Having an above-normal snowpack year like this year, he said, will help replenish depletions seen at some of the state’s reservoirs due to drought.

“That’s the water that we use for everything—for agriculture, for municipal purposes, for our lawns, for our taps, all of it. It all comes from our snowpack,” he said.

The Utah Snow Survey team will be in early Friday morning, hoping to be able to officially announce a historic, statewide record.

“It’s amazing,” Clayton said. “And it’s really fun to be able to experience this firsthand.”

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Utah will likely set historic snow record Friday