Although I still consider 1976/77 to be the worst snow year on record for skiers, mainly because the early season snowfall was so poor (even worse than this year, see Deep Dive: How Unusual Is Our Snowfall and Snowpack This Season, posted 9 Feb 2018), that season is now ahead of this one from a November to March snowfall perspective, with 283.5 inches. Nevertheless, this has been a remarkably dismal snow season and one of only 6 seasons with less than 300 inches of snow at Alta Guard from November to March.
Recent years have also been relatively poor within the period of record. The 10-seasons from 2008/09 through 2017/18 have the lowest seasonal snowfall average with 339 inches. In second place for a 10-year running mean is 1953/54 through 1962/63 with 359 inches. If you want fat snow years, look to the 80s and 90s, with the peak 10-year average of 492 inches from 1988/89 through 1997/98.
Sorry kiddies, but your parents had more powder than you. Quite a bit more powder.
I have been avoiding comments on the causes of recent poor snowfall years for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most important is that I don't think that we have done adequate research to understand the causes. Don't label me a climate denier for saying that. It is clear that our warming climate is decreasing the fraction of wintertime precipitation that falls as snow in the lower elevations of Utah. It is also clear that it is affecting snowpack over Utah.
However, the whims of the jet stream could also be playing a role, and probably a significant one. Tree rings have been used to infer pre-historic climate over the western U.S. and illustrate that although 75 years seems like a long time for humans, it's really an inadequate sample of the climate variations that effect our region. For example, tree rings have been used to construct streamflow for the Bear River and show much stronger (and longer) periods of drought than observed in the latter half of the 20th century.
|Source: DeRose et al. (2015). Drought and pluvial (wet) periods illustrated by black and grey fill, respectively. Note that this graph is smoothed to illustrate slower climate variability.|
The long-term trends related to global warming are clear and their impacts on Wasatch snowfall and snowpack will continue to emerge during the 21st century. However, along with these trends are slow variations in regional climate. Understanding and predicting those variations is an important area of research and provides many thesis and dissertation topics for motivated students. Beyond skiing, there are important implications for water resources and water resource management.