Snowpack in perspective

 

A recent article documenting the decline in Western snowpacks is misleading (“The Latest,HCN, 1/21/19). As one of the longtime collectors of snow data and its analysis as a snow survey supervisor, and having corresponded with the authors of the paper cited, I would like to add some perspective. The article documented the decline of snowpacks across the West starting in the 1980s and ending in 2016 and is factually correct. However, the climate anomaly here is the decade of the 1980s, which was exceptional for Western snowpack. A decadal comparison of snowpack in Utah reveals that statistically the current decade is no different than other dry decades and in fact happens quite frequently. Likewise, comparisons of SNOTEL sites are tricky. Originally, SNOTEL sites were installed using stainless steel snow pillows, until a better sensor was found.  The stainless steel pillows held about 20 gallons of fluid, and the so-called “hypalon” held 150 to 200 gallons. Hypalon pillows collect snow later in the season, collect less snow than their stainless counterparts and melt out earlier, and replacement with hypalon pillows was not standardized across the states. In fact, there are many other factors impacting snow accumulation at both snow courses and SNOTEL sites that have impacted the data, many in a negative way that are not climatic in origin. Temperature, for example, is not the primary factor in snowmelt, especially compared to solar radiation. Dust on snow is another factor. All of these create a more complicated picture than was presented, when what we need is a wider perspective on the decline in Western snowpack.

Randall Julander
Layton, Utah

 

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