Thursday, December 19, 2013

Cage Match: Tug Hill Plateau vs. Wasatch Mountains

Many of my regular blog readers who have a great interest in Wasatch weather are probably wondering if I have gone off the deep end given all the posts I have been doing from northern New York.  What can I say.  We're having a great time.  Yeah, there's some good weather in northern Utah right now, but my mind is still locked on the incredible storms we observed over the past couple of weeks on the Tug.  So, let's have a comparison or, dare I say, a cage match.  This will also introduce new upstate NY readers to the remarkable snow climate of the Wasatch Mountains.


The Wasatch Mountains extend roughly north-south through northern Utah with the highest and broadest portion of the range rising up to 7000 vertical feet above the Salt Lake Valley to the southeast of the Great Salt Lake.  This high portion of the Wasatch Mountains, which contains many world-famous ski resorts such as Alta, Snowbird, Solitude, Brighton, Canyons, Park City, an Deer Valley, is called the central Wasatch.

The Tug Hill Plateau rises very gradually from the shores of Lake Ontario (~250 feet above sea level) to a maximum elevation of about 2000 feet.  Slopes on most of the Tug are pretty gradual and do not support downhill skiing.  The exception is the eastern side which drops sharply to the Black River Valley.  Snow Ridge ski area on the eastern side has a vertical drop of 450 feet.

The topography of the Wasatch Mountains and the Tug Hill Plateau.  Note color scale change.  Shaded elevation
is in meters.
Snow Climate

Snowfall in the central Wasatch Mountains increases very rapidly with elevation.  Average snowfall on the western side of the central Wasatch increases from about 100 inches at 5000 feet to more than 500 inches a year at 8500 feet in Little Cottonwood Canyon.  It is likely that the high terrain surrounding Little Cottonwood receives more than 600 inches a year above 10,000 feet.

Snowfall in the central Wasatch Mountains.  LCC=Little Cottonwood Canyon.  Red numbers are based on records from the Western Region Climate Center.  Yellow are estimates.  The 404 inch average in upper Big Cottonwood is probably lower than recent climate averages.  Background photo from
Very few stations have reported snowfall observations over an extended period on the Tug Hill Plateau, so to get some idea of the distribution of snow in the area for our field program, I concentrated on a three year period with the greatest coverage of observations reported to the Buffalo, NY National Wather Service Office.  Three years is too short for a climatology, but I suspect that these numbers are probably within 20% of the long term average at most locations.  Here you can see why we were so keen to put our instruments up at North Redfield, which had an average annual snowfall during this period of 254 inches, followed by a 236 inch average in North Osceola.  Note that neither of these sites are in the center of the upper Tug, so snowfall amounts in that area remain undocumented.  I suspect that if one wants to argue for the snowiest location in the east, that some of the higher peaks of Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire, or locations on the Keweenaw Peninsula might top the snowiest portion of the Tug, but in all likelihood the Tug Hill Plateau has the largest continuous area with an average snowfall of more than 200 inches in the eastern United States.

Finally, we could do a comparison of lake-effect in the two regions.  The Tug wins hands down here as most of the snow that falls in the Wasatch is of the non-lake-effect variety.  Based on our estimates, I would say something like 25-50 inches a year (on average) in the Wasatch is lake effect, whereas a big chunk of the Tug snowfall is lake effect.

Storm Intensity

Utah's 24-hour snowfall record is also an impressive 55.5 inches, set at Alta Ski Area, which ain't too shabby.  But sorry Utah powder snobs, the Tug has you beat here.  How about 77 inches in 24 hours on Jan 11-12, 1997 (more than the US record for 24 hours, but it wasn't accepted due to some irregularities in the measurement, but we can be reasonably confident that a boatload of snow fell).   Snowfall rates of more than 5 inches an hour occur in lake-effect storms on the Tug (we observed two periods with 4-5 inch an hour snowfall rates just during our brief stay), so when it comes to intensity, my view is that the Tug beats the Wasatch hands down.  Even hardened Utah powder snobs in our group, including a long-time Alta ski patroller, were blown away by the intensity of snow.

Water Content

Utah is known for the Greatest Snow on Earth.  Many people believe this is because our snow is unusually dry, but really the water content of Utah snow is pretty similar to that of the Tug Hill below.  The map below shows the average snow-to-liquid ratio of snow in the United States, which basically tells you how much snow you get out of an inch of water.  A 15 means you get 15 inches of snow for every inch of water.  Higher values thus indicate drier, fluffier snow.  The average for Utah is somewhere around 14 or 15 to one.  Similar values are found in the lake-effect snowbelts of the east, including the Tug Hill Plateau.
Source: Baxter et al. (2005)

So, in this cage match we have a draw.  The central Wasatch win for average annual snowfall, the Tug wins for storm intensity, and we have a tie for average snow water content.  The Tug gets more lake effect, but the Wasatch have stronger contrasts in annual snowfall.  Bottom line is that residents of both regions have good reasons to take pride in their snow.  Now go and collect some good observations so that we have better climatologies in the future!


  1. Deciding factor... Wasatch has topography that allows you to actually enjoy the snow. Let's see people ski 20,000' vertical per day on Tug Hill.

    1. Tug+Wasatch=Japan

      More on this maybe in the future, but right now my cup runneth over

    2. Ah, You just need to know what to do, yes maybe no vertical drops, but we can ride snowmobiles all day and not hit the same trail twice. Many of the trails are wide and fast, so you can get your wind in your face (Helmet) experience! Another growing sport here is the Kite boarding in the wide open fields

  2. Interesting stuff! During the last 8 years, I have done most of my skiing in the Wasatch. Prior to that, I skied most of my days in the Sierra Nevada (California). I recall one day when it dumped almost 4 feet on Donner Summit. Looking at snowfall records in the Sierra, I see: "Second heaviest U.S. 24-hour snowfall record: 67 inches (5.6 feet) January 4-5, 1982" on Echo Summit, which is on the Sierra Nevada Ridge just to the south and west of Lake Tahoe. Heavy Sierra snowfalls are mostly due to strong Pacific Coast storms. Most of the snow that falls in the Sierra Nevada has a high (average) liquid water content.

  3. Tug Hill region resident here... do people in Utah actually live at high enough elevations to experience that much snow on a regular basis, or are these just isolated ski resorts? There is a big difference in skiing in snow and living in it.

    Don't the Coastal Mountains around the Glacier Bay region of Alaska receive more snow than Japan?

    1. Japan is likely the snowiest lake effect region in the world and also contains the snowiest urban areas in the world. Coastal mountains of Alaska are certainly snowier, but my comment that tug + wasatch= japan was really just a cryptic way of saying Japan has lake effect and mountains (lake effect from sea of japan). You are right that v most Utahns don't live in the snowiest areas of the wasatch (although some do, your winters are still nastier!).

  4. The tug area is flat and not conducive to down hill skiing but as someone else mentioned offers a lot of alternative snow activities including snow dog sledding, kite boarding and snowmobiles are huge in this region, you'll often even see snow mobiles parked at restaurants in the middle of downtown Syracuse/Watertown. But there is plenty of downhill skiing not too far away. The Adirondack Mountains aren't far with its skiing resorts and the Syracuse area has several ski resorts . Although even I agree that none of these places can compete with the higher elevation mountains in the west for skiing.

    1. What will really blow your mind and what I saw last winter was a snow dog sled, parked next to a snowmobile, parked next to an Amish horse and buggy. Just a little bit of the crazy diversity up here.

  5. For the Tug, does Ontario completely freeze? If so, what is the average date of ice-in? And if this is the case, I would guess that this would front load the lake effect snow totals to the front half of the winter making the snow totals even more impressive. Either way, the lake temperature cools so that heat loss plays a role in the snow climo I would imagine?

  6. Lake Ontario does not ice in, so it can produce boatloads of snow whenever the wind direction and upper elevation temperatures are conducive. I haven't yet seen snow in July, but I'm just shy of 60.

  7. If you are interested in lake effect snow, Mark Monmonier, Syracuse University Geographer, just published a book on the topic. It is probably the best of its kind, and besides, Mark's books are always a pleasure to read.