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Look to history for weather predictions

by Mark McLaughlin

Residents of Western Nevada just breezed through the warmest autumn in recorded history, but you didn’t hear anyone complaining. Of course, now that the holidays are upon us, everyone is wondering where the snow is. Weatherwise Nevadans will tell you our region’s weather is not always compliant with the calendar.

In his November 1999 climate summary, State Climatologist John James reports that the second warmest November (+6.4 degrees), the fifth warmest October (+5.4), and the fourth warmest September with a +5.2-degree departure from average combined to create the warmest fall in the 112-year-long record. Precipitation was less than half the seasonal average.

So what’s in store for the winter of 1999-2000? Predicting weather in Nevada, especially long-range, is tricky business, but an on-going La Nina event in the Pacific Ocean offers some clues. This episodic cooling of sea surface temperatures (SST) began in June 1998 and is expected to continue until spring 2000. (La Nina events may persist for several years.) The oscillation between above average (El Nino) and below average SSTs probably goes back thousands of years, but most analyses of these oceanic-atmospheric events began after World War II when ocean temperature records became more extensive and accurate.

The current La Nina is the 13th episode this century. Some of the driest winters in Sierra Nevada history have occurred during La Nina events. A severe drought in the mid-1970s crippled Tahoe ski resorts, which lacked artificial snow making systems at the time. Cool SSTs in 1924 cut off eastbound Pacific storms and produced the Sierra’s driest winter on record. Research indicates that the second year of an extended cold episode tends to be drier than normal.

n Winter of 1907. But La Nina events can also generate big winters. In fact, the Sierra snowfall record of 884 inches (more than 73 feet!) was set in 1907 when Pacific water temperatures were cooler than normal.

The remarkable winter of 1906-07 produced the Sierra’s all-time greatest seasonal snowfall as well as Western Nevada’s greatest flood. Bitter cold had invaded the northern part of Nevada by November 1906, and vicious blizzards weren’t far behind. The Reno and Carson Valley areas endured the brunt of the severe weather. Schools and stores were frequently closed and the deepening snowdrifts trapped many Nevada residents. The relentless storms produced prodigious snow, destructive floods and true heroism. Amazingly, one of those superhuman heroes walked on four legs.

As storm after storm swept across the region in January 1907, two miners were trapped in an abandoned cabin where they taken refuge from the snowy gales. Chris Jepperson and Jack Reynolds had floundered helplessly in 15-foot snowdrifts, and now they were stranded at the Winters Mine, located in the mountains east of Gardnerville.

n Dog to the rescue. Without food and feeling desperate, the men turned to their one possible savior – Jepperson’s cocker spaniel. They tied a message around its neck, offered a few encouraging words, and forced the dog out into the drifts to die or reach Gardnerville, about 20 miles away. Seven days later the heroic canine struggled into town, and then it wandered around for two more days before someone noticed the message and its plea for help.

To the rescue, three friends of the miners trailed the exhausted but loyal dog into the mountains. Arriving at the site on snowshoes, the rescuers dug down to the cabin and found Jepperson and Reynolds huddled together, emaciated and freezing, but still alive. After he revived, Jepperson swore that, from then on, his plucky canine would be treated like a prince.

Snowy weather continued in the northern part of the state throughout January 1907, and nighttime temperatures stayed below zero for almost two weeks. The cold and lack of fuel closed the schools, forcing parents to keep their children home in bed, wrapped in quilts and blankets for warmth. H.M. Yerington, general manager of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad, called upon local men to dismantle the Union Bridge in Virginia City for the 200 cords of wood it would produce.

In Tonopah, the lightweight boxing championship between Joe Gans and underdog “Kid” Herman was held despite a raging blizzard. Proclaimed the “First Fistic Battle in a Snowstorm,” the prizefight was staged inside a huge tent. The canvas arena withstood the winds and snow, but single-digit temperatures forced sportswriters to wear lambskin gloves while penning their stories. Several writers expected a first-round knockout and a quick end to their chilly assignment, but the contest went to the eighth round before Gans knocked out the Kid.

n Raging Carson. Warm Pacific air surged into the region in February. The mild temperatures transformed the frozen roads into impassable avenues of mud. During the first four days of February, more than 7 inches of rain soaked the Sierra’s 20-foot snowpack. After 13 inches of rain drenched the mountains in March, the Truckee, Carson and Walker rivers flooded to record levels. In Western Nevada, the rising water covered thousands of acres of prime ranch land to a depth of 6 feet. The Carson Valley was transformed into a lake, and the bodies of drowned cattle, dogs and horses floated over the countryside. The raging Carson and Walker rivers washed out every bridge between Gardnerville and the Carson Sink.

The winter of 1906-07 proved to be one of the toughest on record, rivaling the epic winters of 1889-90 and 1951-52. Historically, La Nina events have frequently induced heavy rain and flooding early in the season before fizzling out after January. (In fact, six of the 12 largest floods on the American River this century occurred during La Nina-influenced seasons.)

Considering how La Nina has influenced Western Nevada weather this century, an average winter would be just fine.

n Weather Historian Mark McLaughlin’s books, “Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe,” are available at Kennedy’s Books in Carson City or at Amazon.com. McLaughlin is a North Lake Tahoe resident.