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

For data sources and archives of past Wild About Utah episodes visit

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.


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. [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.


Virga: Teasing Rain

Virga: Teasing Rain

Virga courtesy and Copyright 2010 Kevin Connors a.k.a Virga teasing rain
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Kevin Connors
August is the perfect month to observe virga in Utah, for it is the monsoon season here. Moist subtropical air is flowing northward from the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California. When this warm, moist air is driven upward by convection and mountains, towering thunder heads result.

Below the bellies of these dark clouds you sometimes see grayish windswept curtains or streamers that do not reach the ground. Meteorologists call them “virga”, virga spelled with an “i”, from the Latin for “streak”. The word “virga” is absent from the prose of Mark Twain and the exploratory reports of John Wesley Powell because the word “virga” was only coined 70 years ago.

Virga: Descending Precipitation & Downdrafts

Virga in Cache Valley courtesy and Copyright 2010 Jim Cane
Virga in Cache Valley
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Jim Cane
These picturesque virga are descending precipitation. One might guess it to be rain, but most meteorologists agree that it is frozen precipitation which is melting and evaporating as it drops through our dry Utah air. Like a home swamp cooler, evaporation in virga causes cooling which leads to the chilly downdrafts that accompany our summer thunderstorms. In the humid tropics, rains can be lukewarm, but our summer cloudbursts are goose-bump cold, owing to the same evaporation which yields virga.

Virga are a tease for parched summer landscapes, a herald of wild fires ignited by dry lightning, and a generator of dust storms as downdrafts scour dusty salt flats. But mostly, the curtains of precipitation that are virga are a fleetingly beautiful element of our western summer skies, well worth a pause and a picture, especially if you are lucky enough to see one accompanied by a rainbow or a fiery sunset.

Virga in Tucson, AZ Courtesy and Copyright 2010 Julio Betancourt, Photographer
Virga in Tucson, AZ
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Julio Betancourt
This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Jim Cane
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Julio Betancourt
Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Jetstream, an online school for weather, NWS NOAA Southern Regional Headquarters, Ft worth, TX,

Virga in Tucson, AZ Courtesy and Copyright 2010 Julio Betancourt, Photographer
Virga in Tucson, AZ
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Julio Betancourt

Fire weather : a guide for application of meteorological information to forest fire control operations, Mark J. Schroeder and Charles C. Buck, USDA Forest Service,

The Book of clouds, John A. Day, Sterling, 2005,

Live Worldwide Network for Lightning and Thunderstorms in Real Time, Blitzortung,

A Utah Skier’s Snow Lexicon

A Utah Skier’s Snow Lexicon: Utah Skier Brian Head Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Utah Skier
Brian Head
Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

Many linguists believe that the language we use both affects and reflects our experience of the world. A popular illustration is that Eskimos have an unusually large number of words to describe snow—32 or more depending on the source. This diverse snow vocabulary is said to be linked with the fact that Eskimos live in a snowy environment and therefore various conditions or forms of snow are more meaningful to them.

There’s a problem with this example: First of all, the term Eskimo is troublesome. A number of cultures are referred to under the umbrella term “Eskimo” and a number of different languages are in the Eskimo-Aleut family.
Secondly, Eskimo-Aleut languages such as Inuit or Yupik tend to join noun roots and suffixes into one word while the same concept may exist in other languages as two words or a phrase.

Some experts believe that an American skier has just as many words for snow as the so-called Eskimo. There are terms defining different snow conditions in the air, on the ground or in certain formations.
In the air, a single unit of snow is a flake. A lot of flakes blowing at least 35 mph is a blizzard. A whiteout is a blizzard with zero visibility. A flurry is swirling mass of snow moved by sudden gusts of wind. Graupel is snow that has been coated by frozen cloud droplets to form a somewhat spherical shape. Snain is a mix of snow and rain, known offslope as “wintry mix.”

Once it hits the ground, snow ideally exists as champagne powder. Untracked snow is delightful and bottomless powder can be fun but challenging. Snow boarders and backcountry skiers might refer to a fresh dump of powder as phat pow. (As in “Dude, it’s gonna be a phat pow day.”) On a clear cold night when surface hoar forms on top of powder, you can get loud powder which makes a beautiful tinkling sound when you ski over it.

Lightly packed powder is acceptable snow for most skiers. Beginner skiers often look for freshly groomed snow. Snow that has been repeatedly groomed by snow cats creates corduroy snow.

There seem to be a lot more words for snow that reflect less favorable ski conditions. Crud, boilerplate, bulletproof, breakable crust, slush and mashed potatoes to name a few. Corn means that large, loose snow crystals froze at night, melted loose during the day and now act like ball bearings under your feet or skis. Death cookies, or frozen chicken heads form when spring slush refreezes. Utah skiers venturing outside the state might encounter blue ice in the East or Sierra cement to the west.

While you are skiing, you might encounter snow in the form of a drift, cornice, avalanche, bank, pipe, roll or mogul. If children are around you might see a snowman, snowfort or snowcave.

I’ve really just touched the surface here. If you consider all the words for snow, ice and crystal structures and weather conditions, the number of snow words really soars. As snow specialists with a diverse vocabulary, you could say that Utah skiers could give the Eskimos a run for their money.

Thanks to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting research and development of Wild About Utah topics.

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



Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Thanks to Jim Akers, Sara Goeking, and Phaedra Budy for their assistance with snow terminology.

Interesting Reading:

Pullum, George. 1991. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. University of Chicago Press.