Graphics show snowfall totals in California: Over 50 feet with more expected this weekend
Almost 12 feet of snow has piled up at Donner Pass in California's Sierra Nevada mountains in the past seven days. (Feb 23 - March 1) And more snow is expected this weekend.
Five months into this water year, counted Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, more than 44 feet has fallen there at the Central Snow Laboratory, a University of California, Berkeley field research station. That's more than double the median of 21.7 feet by this time of year.
"We have had the snowiest October through February going back to 1970," said Andrew Schwartz, lead scientist and manager at the snow lab.
“We're within 3½ feet from the 2017 water year total of 47.77 feet, which is our third largest snowfall year on record in the last three decades," Schwartz said. The lab record for a water year is 53.58 feet set in 2011.
"I try not to speak in absolutes, but it's looking pretty favorable that we could give both of those ... a run for their money," Schwartz said.
Just how much snow has fallen in California?
Ski resorts in the Tahoe region have unofficially received over 30 feet of snowfall including February totals. Western states – especially California – led the country in snowfall since Oct. 1, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"The higher elevations of the Inyo and Sierra National Forests, patches within the Stanislaus and Yosemite Forests, along with isolated areas around Lake Tahoe have recorded over 50 feet of snow since the first of October," said Shawn Carter, a physical scientist at the National Water Center.
Kevin "Coop" Cooper, ski resort consultant, says that the upper mountains in the Lake Tahoe region have seen more than 9 feet of snow from this recent system, over 108 inches in the last seven days, 118 at Kirkwood Mountain Resort.
Tahoe City is just short of doubling its average of 10.7 feet for this point in the water year with a reported 21.3 feet of accumulated snow, the most since March 1, 1969.
"It has been a very long time since that much snowfall has occurred at the Tahoe City location," said Tim Bardsley, hydrologist for the Reno National Weather Service office.
The year is already running 4 feet ahead of 2017 and 2019, which had led recent years with about 17.5 feet.
Cooper says local ski areas are reporting a banner year, with over 600 inches at the summit of Mammoth Mountain, and Tahoe resorts reporting over 500 inches, approaching the area's biggest years at 700-800 inches in a season. They still have March ahead of them, and there's another system on the way.
"We're talking two or three decades since we've seen snow in this many places in the state. We were seeing snow on Mount Hamilton, Mount Diablo, Mount Tamalpais. At the same time we were seeing snow recorded in the Hollywood sign, and that's unheard of."
Watch the accumulation of snow depth in California so far
Snowfall and snow depth are two different measurements.
"I've found that snowfall is often misunderstood," Bardsley said. "People frequently think it is the same as snow depth, which would be the total depth of snow on the ground rather than the sum of the daily snowfall measurements."
The animation below from the National Weather Service shows the snow depth in inches since the start of the water year Oct. 1 to March 1.
In January, California broke rainfall records for any 22-day time frame between Oct. 1 to Jan. 16. The state currently sits 5 inches above the average rainfall for this time of year, according to California Water Watch.
Drive safely if you plan to head to the mountains
Cooper says he is warning everybody about the roads because high winds and light snow are causing continuous whiteout conditions:
"On 50, 80, 88, 89 around Emerald Bay, the roads are probably more treacherous than I've seen in my in my 30 years here because of the consistency of the winds. We were seeing Category 1, Category 2, winds over the ridge on Donner Pass. I was actually looking at the Kirkwood anemometer when it reached 115 miles an hour last night."Cooper also reminds drivers not to be overconfident in all-wheel-drive, and to avoid taking tires designed for city driving into the mountains regardless of traction control systems as they can harden and reduce traction.
"Tesla's are amazing because the way the motor works and it moves the power between the different wheels, but it doesn't matter if you've got a set of city tires on because they just spin."
He offers a special warning for drivers of electric vehicles: charge up your car fully before you head into the mountains.
"If you have a regular car, have a full tank if you are driving in a storm or over a pass, but charge your damn electric car, because it will just stop, turn off, and there is nothing you can do."
Learn more about driving safely in the snowNeed to drive in the snow or recover from a skid on ice? Tips on how to deal with the white stuff this winter