Alan Riquelmy

DONNER SUMMIT, Calif. (CN) — The Central Sierra Snow Lab, sitting near Donner Pass at over 7,000 feet in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, started 2024 with 32 inches of snow on the ground.

Since Jan. 1, 39 inches have fallen — 13 of them in a Wednesday storm.

“It actually underperformed,” said Andrew Schwartz, lead scientist and manager with the snow lab, saying about 2 feet was expected. “But we got a lot less.”

Wednesday’s snow was expected to start earlier in the day, and the late start affected the totals. Also, the structure of the snow crystals was different from what he expected, leading to less accumulation.

The snowfall is welcome, but it’s much less than what Schwartz, who held a Thursday press conference, would like to see by this time of year. His lab saw snow in early December, though it flattened. The three storms he’s seen this month have been more consistent.

The snowpack in the Sierra is currently 60% of average. Statewide, it’s 42% of average.

The wettest periods of the year are from December to February, meaning Schwartz only has a handful of weeks of great snow-producing weather left. He called the next two to four weeks “vital.”

“We are seeing these storms help our snowpack a little,” he said. “We’re getting better, but still shy of where we want to be.”

The state is still seeing positive impacts from last winter’s storms. Schwartz pointed to the levels of California’s reservoirs, noting that many of them remain above their historical averages.

Shasta Lake, the state’s biggest man-made lake, stood at 69% of its total capacity and 114% of its historical average. The Lake Oroville boasted 69% of its capacity and 128% of its historical average.

California may come to rely more on its reservoirs this coming year if Schwartz’s weather predictions hold. Another storm is expected this coming Saturday and into Sunday.

“I would say 1 to 2 feet (of snow) is a safe bet,” Schwartz said.

However, the forecast looks bleak afterward. There’s a possibility of some precipitation in the middle of next week, but meteorologists see dry conditions after that.

Looking out one month, Schwartz said precipitation looks average for California and below average for much of the West. Those “dry characteristics” are expected over the next three months as well, though Schwartz noted that doesn’t rule out storms.

The snow lab’s press conference came a day after a deadly avalanche at Palisades Tahoe in Olympic Valley took the life of Kenneth Kidd, 66, who resided in both nearby Truckee and Point Reyes near San Francisco. Three other people were treated for injuries and released.

The deadly avalanche happened around 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. The Palisades Tahoe ski patrol responded and, with the help of over 100 personnel and members of the public, searched the area with technology like avalanche transceivers, as well as rescue dogs.

The avalanche’s cause is under investigation.

A second reported avalanche happened around 12:30 p.m. Thursday.

"Upon receiving the report, the Summit lift and the terrain was immediately closed," said Patrick Lacey, public relations manager with the resort, in a statement. "After searches were completed and it was confirmed that no guests or employees were involved, the area was cleared by Ski Patrol and the lift was reopened."

Palisades Tahoe in a statement thanked the personnel and volunteers who helped with the search, calling their efforts “remarkable.”

“It is times like this that show just how deeply we care for one another,” the resort said. “Not just at Palisades Tahoe, but in the ski community as a whole.”

Schwartz prefaced his press conference by saying it’s too soon for his office to make a comment about a possible analysis of the avalanche.

“Us here at the snow lab, those affected are in our thoughts,” he said.

Asked about how to predict an avalanche, Schwartz said they are based on observation. That involves digging snow pits to determine if weak layers exist in the snowpack. Identifying times of changing temperature and strong winds also play a role, though because of those factors a prediction would be limited to seven days.

More From Missoula Current