Winter so far ties with driest winter on record – but there is hope

By Wendilyn Grasseschi, Times Reporter and Kristina Blüm Justice Inyo Register Reporter
Staff Writer

As of this week, the Eastern Sierra has now tied with the all-time driest winter to date on record, the winter of 2014-15.

As of Jan. 19, the Eastern Sierra snowpack overall was averaging between a high of 36 percent of normal for the date at Cottonwood Lakes, and 10 percent of normal for the date at Sawmill Pass, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s latest snow survey. Mammoth Pass came in at a measly 26 percent of average for the date and overall, the entire Eastern Sierra snowpack averaged about 22 percent of normal, which is the same as that date in the winter of 2014-14.

But there is hope.

According to local and National Weather Service forecasters, the latest forecast as of today is holding fast to an emerging trend pointing to the strong possibility of a wetter pattern setting up as soon as this weekend, a pattern that will last at least into the end of the month – and perhaps beyond.

The change is due to the breaking down of the weak to moderate La Nina pattern that has almost totally blocked almost all possible incoming storms this winter.

The change will start slowly, with the first storm coming in Thursday night with only a few inches of snow. But as the new patterns set up, each storm after that is expected to be slightly wetter and colder, bringing some much-needed precipitation to the Eastern Sierra – perhaps a foot in the highest elevations of the Sierra – until at least into the first week of February, the NWS Reno office said this week.

A second storm this weekend later this weekend could be measured in feet at the highest elevations of the Sierra, with more storms arriving next week as well, the NWS said.

“The pattern begins to change late Thursday night as Sierra ridge winds increase in response to a low-pressure trough headed our way from the Pacific Northwest coast,” they said. “As for precipitation, confidence continues to increase in regard to overall snowfall chances across the region Friday into early Saturday... Snow will most likely be light with the bulk of it falling along with frontal passage Friday evening. ... (and) widespread snow should follow thereafter as snow levels drop below 4,000 feet behind the front,” with Mammoth forecast to receive between one and four inches of snow in the first storm.

“True, it is not a lot for our region being the end of January,” the NWS said, but more is on the way. “The main changes to the long term were to increase the chance of snow for Sunday night into Monday and increase prelim amounts slightly,” they said. “Overall, the ensembles are in reasonably good agreement through Monday with a brief break Saturday afternoon into Sunday morning before the next storm arrives Sunday afternoon. That system looks to be stronger than Friday`s and colder. The storm is coming in from the northwest with a negative tilt, but the main part will be fast moving. It has decent amounts of moisture, so with the main part of system we could see a foot of dry powder in the Sierra with perhaps an inch or two of snow into Western Nevada. Snow showers will continue into Monday evening,” they said.

After that?

“Midweek, things break down with the models,” they said. “For now, we are more broad brushing with at least a slight chance of precip through Wednesday night. Chances are slightly higher on Wednesday... Despite the uncertainty midweek, the pattern does look overall cool and wet through the end of the month. Even if the midweek storm does remain off the coast, all the ensembles show another storm upstream to possibly affect the region, or eject that offshore low through.”

That is welcome news, forecasters said, after the most recent series of storms did almost nothing to build up the snowpack.

“We were super disappointed,” said Chris Outler, meteorologist for the Las Vegas forecast office of the National Weather Service. “The pattern backed off and stayed focused on Oregon and Washington, so it has stayed very dry here.”

The weather was unseasonably warm in Mammoth, with temperatures hitting the 60s – in the middle of January, closing in or bypassing all-time records for the dates. And it wasn’t just Mammoth; the Owens Valley over the weekend came in with highs 10-20 degrees above normal for this time of year. For example, instead of temperatures in the 50s, on Friday, Bishop recorded a high of 71 degrees, tying 2011 and 2014 for the highest temperature recorded on that day. Last Thursday’s high of 76 degrees shattered the old record of 73, set in 2009. Each day over the weekend saw highs in the 70s in the Owens Valley.