Colorado vs. Utah Snow

Utah snow in author's backyard: relatively light and dry--and definitely deep, Photo Copyright 2010 Holly Strand
Utah snow in author’s backyard:
relatively light and dry
–and definitely deep.
Copyright © 2010 Holly Strand

Hi I’m Holly Strand.

Growing up in Colorado, it never crossed my mind that the snow might be better somewhere else. I believed that my state was the center of the universe– at least as far as snow and skiing were concerned. A couple of decades passed and now I am a Utah resident. I couldn’t help but notice that snow quality here is well beyond satisfactory. And many Utah license plates claim the Greatest Snow on Earth. So, I wondered… Who has better snow? Colorado or Utah?

People usually assume that “great snow” means voluminous and powdery. So let’s compare the 2 states using measures of snow depth for volume and measures of water content for powder.

As far as snow depth, Alta takes the cake and wins mega points for Utah. According to data collected by ski area avalanche professionals, Alta’s average annual snowfall from Nov 1-Apr 30 is 530 inches. That’s 44 feet of snow ! A few other Utah resorts,–plus Colorado’s Wolf Creek Pass–come next with 400 + inches. After that, you get several 300+ inches resorts in both states. More in Colorado, but that’s just because there are more resorts in general. Colorado also has a bunch of areas with 200+ inches. But the point is that a handful of super-snowy resorts lead the pack and most of them are in Utah.

Next I located National Weather Service data for the average water content of freshly fallen snow. The lower the value, the drier the snow. It turns out that the mean water content of new snow decreases as you move eastward from the Pacific Coast to the Rockies. You get values around 12 % water content for the Sierras. This is the infamous Sierra Cement. Intermountain (including the Wasatch Mountains) values hover around 8.5%. The mean water content value for Central Rocky Mountain stations was close to 7%. So in general, Colorado has less watery snow. Of course there are localized anomalies in each state. But overall, Colorado appears to edge out Utah for light, dry, and fluffy snow.

So who has the best snow overall? Well, I guess I still haven’t solved that issue. Best to discuss it further after an exhilarating day on the slopes. Let us know what you think: Send us an email at wildaboututah@gmail.org

For data sources and archives of past Wild About Utah episodes visit www.wildaboututah.org

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy and Copyright 2010 Holly Strand

Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Armstrong, R.L. and B.R. Armstrong. 1987. Snow and avalancheclimates of the western United States: a comparison of maritime, intermountain and continental conditions. IAHS Publ. 162
(Symposium at Davos 1986 – Avalanche Formation, Movement and Effects), 281–294

Baxter, M.A., C.E. Graves, and J.T. Moore, 2005: A Climatology of Snow to Liquid Ratio for the Contiguous United States, Weather and Forecasting, 20, 729-744.

Crocker, Tony. BESTSNOW.NET – an independent statistical analysis of snow characteristics (based on data collected by ski area avalanche professionals) at major North American ski resorts. http://webpages.charter.net/tcrocker818/ [accessed December 14, 2010]

Steenburgh, W. J., and T. I. Alcott, 2008. Secrets of the “Greatest Snow on Earth.” Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 89, 1285-1293.

 

Riparian Habitat

Lower Calf Creek
A lower riparian zone
Courtesy and
Copyright © Charles Hawkins

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

When you think of Utah, a number of iconic landscapes come to mind. The arches, buttes and mesas in southeastern Utah’s red rock country; the snow-capped mountains of the majestic Wasatch Range, the endless horizon of the Bonneville Salt Flats and the immense expanse of the Great Salt Lake. But the most critical ecosystem in terms of life support for Utah’s plants and animals is not always recognized. I’m referring to riparian zones. These are the ecosystems that occur along the banks of streams and rivers. They are most recognizable in the desert where they occur as distinctive green strips of vegetation along waterways. But they also occur in grasslands, shrublands and forests albeit with different compositions of plants and animals.

Riparian areas provide all the basic needs of life – food, water and shelter from predators – in a surprisingly compact space. Intact riparian zones are physically complex, with a layer of grass, then shrubs, then upper canopy trees. This structural complexity creates a number of biological niches. That’s why the highest levels of biodiversity are consistently found there. Average bird densities are approximately twice as high in riparian areas as in adjacent upland areas. And more wildlife species use riparian areas than all other habitats in Utah combined. Even fish populations are higher in streams adjacent to riparian areas. Fish use woody debris as shelter, and the vegetation stabilizes stream channels and reduces temperature fluctuations in the water.

Riparian areas only cover about one half of one percent of Utah’s total land area. Above 5500 feet the dominant woody plants are willow, cottonwood, water birch, black hawthorn and wild rose. Common animals include the northern river otter, the beaver, American dipper, smooth greensnake and the rubber boa.

Invasive Tamarisk(Salt Cedar)
populates a lower riparian
zone in Professor Valley along
the Colorado River
Courtesy and
Copyright © 2009 Holly Strand

Lowland riparian areas represent one of the rarest habitats in the state-covering only 0.2 percent of Utah’s total land area. Fremont cottonwood, netleaf hackberry, velvet ash, desert willow and squaw-bush are the most visible plants here. The exotic tamarisk and Russian olive are now frequently part of the lowland mix. Mollusks, broad-tailed hummingbirds, canyon treefrogs, Allen’s big-eared bats, yellow-billed cuckoos, and many other animals depend on lowland riparian habitats. My personal riparian favorite is the belted kingfisher that patrols the green-lined waterways in search of tasty fish.

Humans were originally riparian creatures. But once we learned to pipe and move water at will, we were free to settle elsewhere. Nevertheless, we are still attracted to aquatic landscapes. So Utah’s riparian areas have taken on a recreational function for many of us. They offer great fishing, they cool us off as we paddle or float, and they provide a quiet sanctuary to enjoy the sight and sound of water. Best of all, riparian areas offer an excellent opportunity to catch a glimpse of Utah’s amazing wildlife.

Thanks to the USU College of Natural Resources for supporting research and development of this Wild About Utah topic. And thanks to Frank Howe of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and. Charles Hawkins of USU’s Watershed Science Department for their help with the scientific content of this piece.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Frank Howe & Holly Strand

References:
“Commonly Asked Questions About Riparian Management Systems,” Agroecology Issue Team, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University.
http://www.buffer.forestry.iastate.edu/Assets/FAQ.pdf
Hawkins, Charles P. “What are Riparian Ecosystems and Why are We Worried About Them?” Riparian Resources: A Symposium on the Disturbances, Management, Economics and Conflicts Associated with Riparian Ecosystems, Natural Resources and Environmental Issues, Volume I, 1994, College of Natural Resources, Utah State University.
http://www.cnr.usu.edu/quinney/files/uploads/NREI1.pdf
State of Utah, Division of Wildlife Resources. Lowland Riparian Habitat. http://wildlife.utah.gov/cwcs/01.pdf [ accessed May 11, 2009 ]
State of Utah, Division of Wildlife Resources. Mountain Riparian Habitat. http://wildlife.utah.gov/cwcs/03.pdf [ accessed May 11, 2009 ]