Tahoe winter weather outlook: Epic winter of 2023, El Niño conditions ripe for 2024

Snow management was a
full-time job. | Mark McLaughlin

At the stroke of midnight on Sept. 30, the 2023 water year in California bit the dust.

Now that the snow has mostly melted from that monster winter, it’s time to evaluate the sensational headlines and realize that it was not the record season for snow and water that some in the media would have you believe. References to record snow and precipitation continue even though end-of-year water data indicate otherwise.

That’s not to say it wasn’t an epic season. Officially, 754 inches (nearly 63 feet) of snow buried the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory near Donner Pass, the fifth greatest at Norden/Soda Springs since Central Pacific Railroad began measuring snowfall there in 1880.

Tahoe City’s location also ranked fifth for snowfall with 316 inches, along with third place for coldest on record. Weather Bureau measurements for Tahoe City began in 1909, the longest dataset in the Tahoe Basin. For any Tahoe City residents who were still angling for first place, you needed 219 inches (18.3 feet) more snow to tie the monster winter of 1952.

Ski area snowfall
NOAA does not include snowfall data from ski areas in official tallies. Resorts are seasonal, relatively new (compared to century-old NWS sites) and accuracy has not always been a priority in daily measurements. Snow, of course, is one of the products they sell. But in the Sierra high country last year, incessant atmospheric rivers coupled with consistently below normal temperatures translated into seemingly endless powder dumps. Every resort experienced one of its best winters in memory for snow depth, quality and refills.

A few California ski resorts set new maximum snowfall measurements. Palisades Tahoe didn’t set a record, but with 723 inches at 8,000 feet elevation, according to the resort’s snowfall tracker, it was a top tier winter like 2017 and 2011. Alpine Meadows will most likely no longer be in the running for extreme snowfall recognition since in the past year or two it appears that the 8,000-foot elevation site is offline, and its website says that measurements are now being taken at the bottom of the Roundhouse chairlift at 6,950 feet where rain and wetter denser snow are more common.

At Mammoth Mountain, with a peak elevation exceeding 11,000 feet in the southern Sierra, 2023 blew past its old snowfall record with about 900 inches (75 feet) at the summit. Snowfall and precipitation totals were more anomalous south of the Tahoe Sierra.

Not quite the wettest winter
Indicative of the relatively dry, powder-type characteristics of last season’s snowfall, the critical 8-Station Northern Sierra Index for precipitation was about 66 inches. That’s 13 inches above average but well shy of recent wet winters such as 2019 with 77 inches or 2017 with 95.

In the Great Basin, at least eight Utah resorts set new maximum snowfall totals. Alta Ski Area set a record with 903 inches (75 feet) by the time it closed at the end of April 2023. The region is famous for its light fluffy snow, but anyone who got a taste of the bottomless cold smoke powder this winter will be bragging about it for years to come. Utah hydrologists tallied 30 inches of snow water equivalent (SWE) in the snowpack statewide, also a record.

2024: El Niño conditions ripe
For the upcoming winter there is a greater than 95 percent chance that the current El Niño-influenced warming phase of the world’s equatorial oceans will continue into March 2024. According to the NOAA Climate Prediction Center’s recent El Niño Advisory, the likelihood that this event will be ranked “strong” is near 75 percent.

After three consecutive years of La Niña’s cooler conditions, sea surface temperatures (SST) spiked this spring across vast reaches of our watery planet and are now the warmest in recorded history. These exceptional SST conditions are unprecedented in the modern record, and it seems logical that the intensified latent heat and moisture will fuel storms this winter.

Scientists caution, however, that the effects of the El Niño Southern Oscillation are muted if the atmosphere doesn’t shift gears along with the ocean. Currently, over the east-central Pacific Ocean, low-level winds have reversed to a westerly flow, while upper-level winds are easterly, both counter to the prevailing direction of the Walker Circulation that transfers heat energy across the Pacific. These tropical anomalies along with observed equatorial rainfall pattern changes indicate El Niño conditions are ripe in the Pacific Ocean.

The little boy with the reputation for atmospheric troublemaking is here (El Niño is Spanish for little boy). Avid powder hounds are excited for a potent El Niño-influenced storm pattern on the Pacific Coast this winter. Yes, but where and how will the all-important polar and tropical jet streams set up, and how long will they focus energy on the Tahoe Sierra?

El Niño’s weather swings
Large-scale pattern changes like a deepening of the semi-permanent low-pressure system in the Gulf of Alaska and an enhanced sub-tropical jet stream from the Pacific Ocean into central and southern California are classic signals with a strong El Niño, but do not always portend the kind of wild weather people in California associate with the name. In its advisory the CPC admits that “a strong El Niño does not necessarily equate to strong impacts locally, with the odds of related climate anomalies often lower than the chances of El Niño itself.”

The CPC’s seasonal outlook projects temperature and precipitation trends several months out, but these long-range products are not forecasting tools. Last year’s outlook wasn’t even close.

As of this writing, CPC projections for the core winter months of December, January and February indicate little influence from a strong ENSO event, with equal chances (33 percent) for below, normal or above average precipitation in the Tahoe Sierra. (Precipitation is the combination of rain and water equivalent of snow.)

The temperature outlook is slightly above normal for our neck of the woods. That benign perspective may reflect that some computer models are suggesting the strongest influences from this El Niño may develop in the latter months of winter into spring. Only time will tell.

Read more about Tahoe’s other record-breaking winters in Mark McLaughlin’s book “Snowbound: Legendary Winters of the Tahoe Sierra” available at TheStormKing.com. Read his blog at TahoeNuggets.com or read more columns at YourTahoeGuide.com/history.

Top 10 Snowfall Totals

Taken from Donner Pass

  1. 1938 | 819”
  2. 1952 | 812”
  3. 1880 | 783”
  4. 1890 | 776”
  5. 2023 | 754”
  6. 1895 | 685”
  7. 1983 | 671”
  8. 1935 | 661”
  9. 2011 | 643”
  10. 1893 | 634”