Friday, December 7, 2012

The Pineapple Express and how to find snow in Colorado and other places


A satellite photo of a Pineapple Express weather system moving a river of warm, water-laden air from Hawaii to the West Coast.  Photo courtesy of NASA

The Pineapple Express dumped, poured and saturated the West last weekend, keeping many of us indoors taking care of long-forgotten chores.  Meanwhile, the Coloradan blogosphere was loud with exhortations for more snow.

I'm not the only one with the questions:

1) Where can I find good snow?
2) What does the weather mean for the snowpack?

Alas, there are no straightforward answers, but a little research can tell you quite a bit. One of the best sites I've found for snowpack data is the National Resource Conservation Service SNOTEL site.

NRCS's mandate is to, "measure snowpack in the mountains of the West and forecast the water supply."  This is not for the express purpose of promoting recreation, but it sure helps.  SNOTEL snowpack data includes: snow depth, snow water equivalent, snow temperature and accumulated precipitation.   This can tell you not only how much snow is on the ground at a sensor site, but if the snow is accumulating or melting, and if the snowpack is dense or light and fluffy.

The colored dots represent the "snow water equivalent as percent of normal" snowpack data.  In other words, each dot shows if the SNOTEL site has  received more or less precipitation than average for today's date.
During the days of the Pineapple Express, Ryan and I kept checking the nearest SNOTEL site at Twin Lakes to see if the snow looked good enough for a day of skiing.  What we saw was a melting snowpack, increasing temperatures, and a rising snow water equivalent.  We also checked weather.gov for the weather forecast, which showed rain at very high elevations.  We decided not to go skiing in the rain, on top of heavy, sticky, melty snow.

The SNOTEL data and the weather data are both available on hillmap.com.  You can plan your route in advance, and then check back a day or two before you leave to see snow and weather conditions at your location.

Check SNOTEL on hillmap.com on the Data & Analysis Tab
Check weather at a particular point on the Points tab
Checking weather at a particular point will take you to the weather.gov forecast for that point

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