California Snow Pack Facts

Russ Steele

I have written about the California Snow Pack before, especially during the AB-32/Prop 23 debates. Steven Frisch, Sierra Business Council President, told us that the Sierra snow would soon disappear and our ski industry was threatened by global warming.

Professor John Chirsty, Earth Systems Science Center, University of Alabama in Huntsville, has just published a study that provides some perspective in the Sierra Snow Pack.

Searching for information in 133 years of California snowfall observations


Monthly snowfall totals from over 500 stations in California, some of which date back to 1878, are examined. Most data were accessed through the NOAA archive, but several thousand station-months of data were separately keyed-in from image files of original documents. Over 26,000 of these entries were new relative to the NOAA archive, generally providing data prior to 1920. The stations were then subdivided into 18 regions for the construction of representative time series of each area. There were problems with the basic data, the most difficult with which to deal was the increasing presence of “zero” totals which should have been recorded as “missing.” This and other issues reduce the confidence that the regional time series are representative of true variations and trends, especially for regions with few systematically reporting stations. Interpreting linear trends on time series with infrequent large anomalies of one sign (i.e. heavy snowfall years) and unresolved data issues should be done with caution. For those regions characterized by consistent monitoring and with the most robust statistical reproducibility, we find no statistically significant trends in their periods-of-record (up to 133 years) nor in the most recent 50 years. This result encompasses the main snowfall region of the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. [My emphasis added]

Yes, I know that we are having snow drought this year.  Here is what Dr Christy has to say about that in a Press Release:

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (Feb. 14, 2012) ‹ During some winters a significant amount of snow falls on parts of California. During other winters ‹ like this one (so far) ‹ there is much less snow. But more than 130 years of snow data show that over time snowfall in California is neither increasing nor decreasing.

The analysis of snowfall data from as far back as 1878 found no long-term trend in how much snow falls in the state, especially in the critical western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains, said John Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center at The University of Alabama in Huntsville.

“There isn’t a trend significantly different from zero for the whole period,” Christy said. “I also looked at just the past 50 years and there is no trend over this recent stretch either.”

Details of Christy’s research have been accepted for publication and released on-line by the American Meteorological Society’s “Journal of Hydrometeorology.”*

This line of research was spurred by recent concerns that snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains had decreased in recent years, perhaps due to manmade climate change, Christy said. Those worries, however, were not supported by credible, long-term data.

A native of Fresno, Christy wondered if the snow he remembered covering the Sierra Nevada’s peaks is actually disappearing. His preliminary investigation found a potentially useful set of data: Records of snow measurements at stations along the Southern Pacific Railroad.

“They took great care to measure snowfall because they had to know how much snow fell before sending trains through the mountain passes,” Christy said. “No one else had looked at this data in detail. The records are pretty thorough and the measuring tools ‹ a device resembling a tall, sturdy yardstick ‹ are easy to use and obviously don’t need power, so there aren’t many gaps in the record.”

There was, however, one catch: “They were good at measuring snow but the data they collected in written records had never been keyed in into a computer dataset. Before I could do the analysis I had to manually input 100,000 station-months of data.”

The railroad data was coupled with data from other sources, including hydro-power and regional water systems vitally interested in knowing how much water would be available from snow melt. Other data was collected from logging and mining companies, as well as National Weather Service stations and volunteers. That data had already been digitized by the National Climatic Data Center.

Christy divided the state into 18 regions, based on the amount of snow that falls and on the quality of the records for that region.

“There are six or seven regions with good, robust data going back to the late 1800s,” he said. “In each of those there are five to 15 stations with good records.”

Global warming theory says rising temperatures might reduce snowfall in some areas, while snow might increase in others. That sounds counterintuitive, but it does make sense: At lower, warmer elevations rising temperatures raise the altitude of the snow line, potentially reducing snow fall at lower elevations.

Warmer air also can hold more water vapor than cold air, so rising temperatures should increase the amount of water vapor available for snow and other precipitation.

In high elevation mountain regions where winter temperatures would be below freezing even if they rise two or three degrees, snow would still fall. Those still-cold temperatures combined with the extra water vapor suspended in the warmer air could increase snowfall at higher altitudes.

That’s the theory.

Looking at both the 130-year record and the most recent 50-year record ‹ which includes the 1975 to 2000 period when global temperatures rose ‹ the California data show no long-term changes in snowfall in any region.

“California has huge year-to-year variations and that’s expected to continue,” said Christy, a graduate of Fresno State University. “California is having a snow drought so far this winter, while last year the state had much heavier than normal snowfall. But over the long term, there just isn’t a trend up or down.

“Not to be a scaremonger, but if you go back and look at the paleoclimate reconstructions for the past thousand years, there have been some colossal droughts lasting 50 years or more,” he said. “Those have not been around since the 1400s, although nothing we know about climate science says they can’t come back – global warming or not.”

In earlier research, Christy also showed no long-term decline the Southern Sierra Nevada snow pack. Details HERE.

H/T to Climate Science: Roger Pielke.


About Russ Steele
Freelance writer and climate change blogger. Russ spent twenty years in the Air Force as a navigator specializing in electronics warfare and digital systems. After his service he was employed for sixteen years as concept developer for TRW, an aerospace and automotive company, and then was CEO of a non-profit Internet provider for 18 months. Russ's articles have appeared in Comstock's Business, Capitol Journal, Trailer Life, Monitoring Times, and Idaho Magazine.

2 Responses to California Snow Pack Facts

  1. Russ says:

    Anthony Watts has more details at WUWT, including a plot of the snow fall in the Sierra from the San Francisco Chronicle which shows there is no trend in the Sierra snow pack. Claims that global warming is destroying snow in the Sierra by Steven Frisch at the Sierra Business Council are not supported by the facts.

  2. Rent seekers are seeking rent. That is the reason we see all these lies from so-called, non-profits. They have a license to steal from us.

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