Words on Weather & Climate — May 13, 2010

Snowfall

by CRAIG JAMES

I didn’t see any snowflakes in our area this past Saturday, May 8, but they weren’t far away. There was a light dusting on the ground Saturday morning as far south as Cadillac. Farther north, up to four inches fell east of Atlanta in Montmorency County with considerable damage to tree branches reported. In the Upper Peninsula, almost seven inches fell in Baraga County east of L’Anse, but I’ve seen it snow there in June. Temperatures Sunday and Monday morning, May 9-10 , dropped into the teens in parts of the Upper Peninsula.

Meteorologist Craig James, new Squire columnist

We don’t usually see snow in southern Michigan in May, but it has certainly happened. On May 8, 1923, an Arctic cold front moved across the area that dropped temperatures from the low 60s at 1 p.m. to the mid 30s by 6 p.m. On the following day, May 9, 5.5 inches of snow were officially recorded in Grand Rapids. However, up to a foot of snow fell in a band from Muskegon to Greenville to Lansing.

I’ve seen pictures of that snowfall and I imagine it was enough to get some people to consider moving to a warmer climate. It probably wasn’t very well forecast either. But the snow didn’t last long. By the afternoon of May 10, it had all melted and apparently didn’t cause a lot of damage to vegetation.

We ended up this current season with 72.5 inches of snowfall in Grand Rapids, which is exactly average and about 32 inches less than last season. If I may say so, it is also very much in line with the forecast made in my first article for The Rockford Squire of “snowfall totals much closer to average, perhaps around 70 inches in Grand Rapids, so you won’t be shoveling as much.” We only had two inches of snow this past March and just a few flakes in April for another fairly snow-free spring.

I’ve written in earlier articles about the very snowy season in places like Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. In Washington, D.C., 56.1 inches of snow fell, which is more than 370% above the average of 15 inches. The 78.7 inches in Philadelphia was 407% above the average of 19 inches. To give you an idea how amazing that is, for us to receive that much more snowfall than average, we’d have to get over 290 inches.

Many areas of the western states had another year of above-average snowfall, too. Several locations in Montana had record snow amounts and it was also a great year in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. According to figures released at the beginning of May, the northern Sierra finished the season at 188% of normal snowfall, the central Sierra at 121%, and the southern Sierra at 139%.

Here is an interesting graph from Mammoth Pass, Calif., showing the water equivalent of the snowfall by month compared to normal, and compared to previous years. including last year, the driest year and the snowiest year.

It is amazing how much natural variation there is in the amount of water equivalent. The driest year was 1976-1977 with a maximum of just 10 inches of water content in the snow pack. Only six years later in 1982-1983, there was a maximum of 90 inches of water in the snow pack. This year’s maximum was at 46.6 inches.

Many farmers and businesses in California are allocated a certain amount of water based upon, among other things, the amount of water in the snow pack and reservoirs at this time of year. Even though more water is available this year, the state of California is only planning on granting 40 percent of what has been requested. The pumping restrictions are due to the fact that a few lakes are still running a little below average depth and also to protect endangered fish. The endangered farmers who have suffered several years of drought aren’t very happy.

Craig James has been retired since July 1, 2008, after 40 years of broadcasting television weather. He was chief meteorologist at WZZM-TV for 12 years and chief meteorologist at WOOD-TV for 24 years. He is a graduate of Penn State University, where he received a Centennial Fellowship Award. He was also honored as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

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