Sunday, January 19, 2014

Who Has the Best Snow in the East?

Cultivating snow snobbery at a young age.  The author's son at Alta, UT, April 30, 2011.
If there is one thing that skiers like to argue about it is who has the best snow (or terrain).  Living in Utah, a state that has trademarked the phrase Greatest Snow on Earth, I was infected by powder snobbery many years ago and have often participated vociferously in these arguments.

Of course "best" or "greatest" cannot be scientifically evaluated as they are ultimately a reflection of the eye of the beholder.  From a skiing perspective, if you are looking for great snow, there are probably three key factors to consider:

1. Quality: Typically determined by the water content of the snow, although there are other factors (see item 3 below)

2. Quantity: How much snow falls.

3. Intangibles: How does the snow fall?  How frequent and large are the storms?  Does the snow tend to fall right-side-up or upside down?  Is the area prone to rain-on-snow events? Etc.

The intangibles are important because contrary to popular belief, the best powder skiing is not found in the driest (i.e., low water content) snow, but in "snow with enough body to provide good flotation for the running ski" (a nod to the late Avalanche Hunter Ed LaChapelle for this quote).  Typically flotation is best in snowfalls that have decreasing water content with time, so that dry, lower water content snow sits on top of higher (but not too high) water content snow.  Such a snowfall, known to powder aficionados as right-side up, typically requires storms that start out warmer and get colder with time.

In contrast, more difficult powder skiing is produced by snowfalls that have increasing water content with time, so that wet, higher water content snow sits on top of lower water content snow.  Such a snowfall is called upside down and creates more difficult skiing conditions because the skis tend to punch or dive through the higher density snow and remain submerged in the low density snow.

Utah's "claim" on the Greatest Snow on Earth is based primarily on the snow climate of the Cottonwood Canyons east of Salt Lake City.  The Cottonwoods are special because they have a combination of quantity (500+ inches per year above about 8500 feet), quality (8.4% water content on average), and intangibles.  Those intangibles include a storm climatology that favors lots of goldilocks storms.  Goldilocks storms aren't too big (bad for avalanches), aren't too small (powder skiing requires at least 10 inches of fresh snow), but are just right (Alta averages 17.4 days per season with 10 inches or more of snow).  In addition, the storm climatology in the Cottonwoods favors right-side up snowfalls.  The 8.4% average water content of snow in the Cottonwoods is not unusually low.  You can find drier snow on average across much of Colorado.  The problem there and in many other regions that get drier snow is quantity – deep powder dumps are simply less common.

So, Utah has a pretty good claim on the Greatest Snow on Earth if powder skiing is your yardstick.  Of course, one can make a strong argument for a few other regions.  As discussed in my forthcoming book, Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth, which will be published next fall by the University Press of Colorado, portions of the Teton Range have a snow climatology very similar to that in the Cottonwoods.  Portions of Japan, especially Hokkaido Island, also have a remarkable snow climate due to exceptional sea-effect snowfalls produced by the Sea of Japan.  I personally like interior British Columbia, although it is a bit more susceptible to rain and rime events depending on elevation.

But the focus of this post is the eastern United States and natural snowfall (sorry Hunter Mountain, but your claim of Snowmaking Capitol of the World impresses me not).  We have been measuring snow here on the Tug Hill Plateau and during lake-effect storms we have found an average water content of only 5.8%.  I was so impressed by this that I quipped at one of our meetings last week that the Tug Hill was now home to the Greatest Snow in the World, which served as a great headline for an article by Syracuse Post-Standard reporter Glenn Coin.

Syracuse Post-Standard
Yup, that was a juicy quote, served up on a platter during a presentation with my usual gusto.  Of course, the Tug does get great snow and they have a legitimate claim to the most intense snow storms in the world.  However, the fickle climate of the northeast makes snow conditions on the Tug quite variable and the mean snowfall is not sufficient to knock Utah and others from their lofty perch as contenders for world champion (skiers might bemoan the lack of big mountains too).

On the other hand, the Tug has a very strong claim on the greatest snow in the eastern United States.  The other contenders are the Keweenaw Peninsula which extends northeastward into Lake Superior from Michigan's upper peninsula, and Jay Peak in northern Vermont.  One of the challenges in refereeing this eastern U.S. beat down is a lack of official weather records.  I will piece together what I can with what is available.  

Tug Hill Plateau, NY

Tug Hill Plateau provides what is probably the largest contiguous area in the eastern United States with an average annual snowfall of 200 inches or more.  According to data provided by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), the average annual snowfall at Hooker/Montague in the northern part of the Tug Hill Plateau was 240 inches from 1981-2010, and it is likely snowier in the area north of Redfield on the western slope of the Tug.  This abundant snowfall makes the Tug the most reliable region for natural snow in the northeast with the rolling terrain ideal for snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.  The steepest, most abrupt topography is on the eastern side where Snow Ridge Ski Area claims an average snowfall of 230 inches, which seems reasonable.  Most of this snow is lake effect that typically features a relatively low water content.  

Snow Ridge: Modest vertical, but big snows.  Even in a poor snow year in the east, plenty of snow to ski here.  This photo was taken on 17 January.
Keweenaw Peninsula, MI

According to data provided by NCDC, the average annual snowfall at Hancock Houghton County Airport is 208 inches (F thumbnail below), and weather historian Christopher Burt reports an average annual snowfall in Herman of 236 inches, but snowfall is probably greater at upper elevations.  Mt. Bohemia near the upper tip of the peninsula (H thumbnail below) serves up 900 vertical feet and claims an average of 273 inches, which seems reasonable.

Source: Acme Mapper
Further, most of this snowfall is lake effect and likely has very low water content.  Long-term records collected by National Weather Service volunteer observers suggests this area receives some of the driest snow in the United States, comparable to that found over the western interior. 

Source: Steenburgh (2014), adapted from Baxter et al. (2005)
Jay Peak, etc.

Near the summits of the higher peaks of Vermont, New Hampshire (especially the Presidential Range), and Maine, snowfall likely exceeds 200 inches at many locations.   The only NCDC observing site that I am aware of near the summit of these peaks, however, is Mount Mansfield, with an average of 244 inches at nearly 4000 feet elevation.  Many ski areas do not report snowfall officially, but Tony Crocker has compiled quite a bit of miscellaneous data at (note his caveat about snow reporting not being an exact science).  These reports are unofficial and sometimes use non-standard recording practices.  The period of averaging likely varies, but there is sufficient evidence to conclude that most of the higher peaks in central and northern Vermont likely receive more than 200 inches.  Jay Peak is commonly cited as the snowiest eastern resort and Tony's data certainly suggests this is the case.  The resort suggests an annual snowfall of 377 inches.  That seems high to me, but something over 300 may be possible (Jay Peakers feel free to cast stones).  Jay sees a greater diversity of storms than Mt. Bohemia or Snow Ridge, and the net result of this is somewhat higher water content snow.  That's not always bad, but perhaps deep dumps of cold smoke are a bit more common at Mt. Bohemia or Snow Ridge, although as noted earlier, right-side-up snowfalls are the key to great powder skiing and it's tough to gauge that intangible from climatological averages.


So, for the eastern snow aficionados, you're looking at the Keweenaw Peninsula, Tug Hill Plateau, or the peaks of northern Vermont.  Who has the best snow?  I'll call it a toss up and let you argue in the comments.  


  1. I used to live in Syracuse and xc ski the Tug quite often. Always thought it would be cool to send the Northeast's garbage to Tug Hill and build a 3000 foot mountain of it to ski from. Can you imagine the lake effect snow that would pile up on THAT?
    From your friend Groomer Raoul

  2. 212" so far at BoHo this year...

  3. I'd take 150 inches at Vail any day over 300+ at Jay Peak. Assuming Jay really gets that much snow, and that is questionable, they don't have to adjust for the multiple mid-winter snow wipeouts. Vermont has had some great snow this year, and by my count they have had three complete wipeouts....60 degrees and fog does a number on the snowpack.

    I have some great power days in Vermont, but don't forget that the weather generally sucks in Vermont all winter. If its not warm and foggy it is either cloudy and cold or clear and brutally cold with wind. And for reasons I can't explain, zero degrees on a cold clear morning at Alta feels so much warmer than zero degrees in Vermont.

  4. I think the lower humidity is why Alta's 0F feels warmer than anywhere out east. Personally, I've lived in Tahoe, Colorado and Utah. Utah's combination of quantity and quality (and ease of access) is unrivaled.

  5. Hate to blow Bohemia's cover, but the blower pow there is unlike anything I've experienced in the West. When the lake effect storms blow through, the temps are usually in the single digits- making the snow super light, fluffy, and often bottomless. Too bad the vert is only 900 feet, otherwise it would be better than a lot of the top spots in the US.

  6. I know this article mentions just the Eastern US, but get over the French language barrier and head north to places like the Laurentians and Gaspe Peninsula. Just as much snow as places Jim mentioned, but way fewer thaws and thus a deeper snowpack.

  7. A couple of Vermont weather guys Scott Braaten and Jay Silveira investigated the Mt. Mansfield station because the numbers seemed low by their experience. The Mt. Mansfield site measures snowfall in a 24-inch canister, which can significantly underreport vs. the open snowboard used at most sites, East and West. They believe and have some data to support the upper elevations of Stowe, Smugglers and Bolton to be just over 300 inches, with Jay Peak being slightly more.

    So despite the quality of lake effect snow, the much greater orographic lift of the Green Mountains result in more snowfall. Japan of course gives you both.

    The Laurentians get much less snow, likely under 200 inches. Le Massif, exposed to the unfrozen Gulf of St. Lawrence, gets about 240 inches. The Gaspe could get more, but I've seen no data. Its spring summer snowpack lasts no longer than the leeward ravines on Mt. Washington in NH though.

    The key issue in degrading eastern snow is RAIN. The top of Mt. Mansfield site averages over 4 days of midwinter rain and 15 days Nov.-Apr. Rain is undoubtedly even more frequent at lower elevations in the East.

  8. I'm glad to see the Keweenaw/Bohemia in the discussion:

    "Very low water content" is entirely consistent with my experience at Bohemia and in the backcountry of the U.P. However, I've cherry picked all of my days out there.

    The numbers from the Keweenaw County Road Commission ( ) are interesting:

    201 inches for the season as of yesterday (Bohemia is claiming 213, which seems very reasonable);

    171.5 inches since December 1;

    That 171.5 inches of snow increased the settled snow depth by only 30 inches between December 1 and January 21.

    It is also interesting to note that during this 7-week period there was only one day with new snow of more than 8.5 inches (17 inches on December 7). It sounds to me like Tug gets more large and intense storms. However, I'm going to hazard a guess that Tug averages more frequent thaws than the Keweenaw.