Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth

An Interview with Professor Jim Steenburgh

LOOK AT THE LICENSE PLATES of the Tacomas in Alta’s parking lot, and most of them will have the slogan, “Greatest Snow on Earth.” This catchphrase has long been used by Utah’s ski marketers. Is it true? Professor Jim Steenburgh is the person on the planet most qualified to answer that question.

The author, meteorologist, and professor of atmospheric science literally wrote the book on the topic. Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth, just released in its second edition, goes into far more than just what makes for good skiing. The book’s substantial subtitle, Weather, Climate Change, and Finding Deep Powder in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and Around the World previews the topics covered by the book and the University of Utah class Steenburgh teaches of the same name

During the heat of a Salt Lake City summer, I had the chance to talk with Professor Steenburgh about deep powder, Goldilocks storms, and how climate change puts it all at risk.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Ski Journal: In your book, Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth, you write a lot about the different types of snow and what makes certain types good for skiing, from stellar dendrites to graupel. Can you kind of give a little overview for the layman what makes great ski snow?

Jim Steenburgh: First, you have to have the right amount of snow. For me, great skiing’s deep powder skiing, right? For deep powder skiing, there’s these Goldilocks storms where you’re in the 10 to 20 inches of new snow range. If you have less than that, you’re not usually floating; you’re riding on the underlying surface. When you start getting over, say, two feet of snow, lots of times the avalanche danger’s bad and it’s problematic.

You really want these Goldilocks storms, and you want what we call right-side-up snowfall where the snow starts out perhaps with a little bit of higher density and then lower density snow falls on top of it. That’s ultimate for ski flotation. You don’t want it the other way around.

TSKJ: The slogan that Utah has the “Greatest Snow on Earth.” Is that true?

JS: You have to buy the book to find out I suppose (laughs). What I say is that no scientists can actually determine what the greatest snow on Earth is, because it really is in the eye of the beholder. It depends on what you mean by greatest. I think from a powder skiing perspective, the best snow climates would be the Cottonwood Canyons of Utah, especially Little Cottonwood Canyon, the Tetons in Wyoming, interior British Columbia around Revelstoke, and then the West Coast of Japan. To me, those are kind of the world’s greatest snow climates.

If you were to roll the dice and say where you’re most likely to find powder skiing at any time well in advance, Hokkaido in late January is probably about as good as it gets, better than Utah. The odds of powder in Hokkaido in late January are quite a bit higher than they are even at Alta. But over the course of the whole ski season, Alta’s pretty good too.

TSKJ: Can you talk a bit about what climate change means for skiers and skiing, and what we as individuals should be doing about it?

 JS: Climate change is a problem for skiing. One thing I usually tell people is it’s not an equal opportunity offender. Some places, the snow climate and the skiing are going to suffer more than others. Colder, high-altitude regions are going to suffer less in most cases than warmer lower altitude regions that are more vulnerable to the next couple of degrees of warming. When we’re talking about high altitude Utah or high altitude Colorado, those are places that have a little bit of insurance against the initial wave of global warming, but lower elevation warmer areas, for example, lower altitudes in the Cascades of Washington, parts of the Sierras, they’re going to see larger relative losses of snowfall and snowpack compared to high altitude Colorado. A lot depends on where you are, but the trends in general in most areas are not ones where we’re expecting to see snowfall and snowpack increase. We’re expecting to see losses just about everywhere, and the losses will be bigger in some areas than others.

So that’s the bad news. The good news is I think if we were to take aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gases now, we still can have a viable ski industry in a lot of areas. But if we don’t, then we start to get to a point where we’re going to see very serious declines in snow, especially in the latter half of the 21st century where skiing will become increasingly difficult economically to keep going as we continue to see warming. It’s not like we’re going to have a planet with no snow, but it just means it’s going to be more difficult to have a viable ski industry.

 TSKJ: Is there anything we should be doing as individual skiers, or is pushing for legislation the most important thing?

 JS: I think we need massive change in how we generate energy and that’s only going to happen with big leadership. It’s good to do things to reduce your carbon footprint, but I actually don’t think so much about carbon footprint as much as I do just having a clean lifestyle. I have solar panels on my house and we just bought an electric car, we’re trying to move off of fossil fuels basically. Those things are nice and, for example, are a small contribution of mine to improve the air quality here in the Salt Lake Valley. But by themselves it’s not going to be enough to do the job. We need to have a massive change in how we produce energy and how we get around. That’s going to take political leadership. It’s going to take engineering. It’s going to take smart people.

As an educator, I tell people the world needs more engineers to figure some of this stuff out, and we need leaders that are going to basically put us on the path to a cleaner energy future. Really, there’s been a lot of talk with politicians, and there’s been a lot of posturing, and there’s been a lot of agreements, but we still have not bent the curve the way we need to in order to reduce carbon emissions and reduce greenhouse warming.

TSKJ: In reading the book, I was struck by just how much room for interpretation there seems to be in reading radar and meteorology in general. You discussed this concept of sipping from the fire hose when it comes to analyzing data. Can you talk about that?

JS: In meteorology, we’re just overloaded with data. You can’t look at it all anymore. It’s incredible volumes of information. It’s a firehose of data, so you have to learn how to sip from the firehose, which means finding the value-added products, the ones that summarize all this information in a way that has value to your end user, whoever that may be. It could be a skier, it could be a ski area, could be the department of transportation for avalanche work, or it could just be the general public. So, that’s part of the job as a meteorologist.

TSKJ: Living in Utah as well, there’s a lot of talk about lake effect snow. I was really surprised in reading the book that lake effect doesn’t really make up a whole lot of the snow that we actually ski. Can you talk about that a bit?

JS: Most people think it’s a bigger number than we’ve estimated in the past. Lake effect snowfall in northern Utah contributes to about 5 or 6 percent of cool season precipitation. That works out to maybe two and a half to three inches of water a year. So you hear lake effect, lake effect, lake effect, but it ends up giving you the impression that it’s happening everywhere all the time, when it might be happening in localized areas. When you add it all up, it’s not as big as you think.

TSKJ: How about a place like Michigan? Can you talk about the Great Lakes and the lake effect snowfall there?

JS: They have a big impact than on snowfall. Those are big lakes and they produce a lot more snow. Japan’s snow is also lake effect essentially, because it’s sea effect snowfall off the Sea of Japan. It’s essentially the same thing. I grew up in Upstate New York and I’ve actually done field work downstream of Lake Ontario in a place called the Tug Hill Plateau which sees some of the most intense snowstorms on Earth. Those storms are a lot bigger and they produce a lot more seasonal snowfall than what we get from the Great Salt Lake. We get snow here though for other reasons, because we have a much bigger mountain range. It would be really awesome if you could take the Keweenaw Peninsula there in Northern Michigan and take those small hills that exist there and make them 3,000 or 4,000 feet high. Then that would probably be one of the better places you could ski on the planet. It’d be a fun exercise for me to do with computer modeling sometime to see how much snow would fall. I don’t think it would be quite up there with Japan because the Sea of Japan is 12 times bigger than Lake Superior, but it would be a pretty impressive snowfall nonetheless.

Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth is available for purchase here.

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