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Snowpack Averages Will Look Promising Next Year, But Experts Say That Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

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With virtually the entire state of Utah classified as experiencing severe drought, snowpack averages will actually look to be rebounding next year. KPCW’s Sean Higgins has more on why those numbers could actually be deceiving.


Many measurements used to put into context things like temperature and precipitation use 30-year averages. For example, when you hear that Utah’s snowpack is a certain percentage of “normal,” that’s compared to an average measurement taken over a 30-year period -- it’s also the standard used by the World Meteorological Organization


Current 30-year averages are taken from 1981-2010. As we enter a new decade, those averages are getting an update. That means average measurements for the state’s precipitation will be going down as record precipitation years between 1981 and 1990 are taken out of those measurements.  


With the 30-year average for precipitation set to decrease as the new measurements go into effect this October, that will create the illusion that things are improving, says Utah Snow Survey data collection officer Jordan Clayton.


“We’re gonna need to caution people because the averages are gonna sound more optimistic,” says Clayton. “Again, for the same amount of snow, once we switch, it’s gonna say that we’re a better percent of average, if you will, a higher percent of average than it would have right now and we don’t want people to get the wrong impression. We’re gonna have to make sure that people really understand, for a given amount of snow on the ground that, again, the average is gonna sound more promising next year than it would have this year.”


Clayton says the new 30-year average is still being calculated.


According to data compiled by the National Weather and Climate Center, the statewide snowpack was hovering around 65% of normal prior to this most recent storm cycle -- now it’s around 82%.


Currently, over 98% of Utah is considered to be experiencing severe drought, with over 57% classified as in exceptional drought -- the highest classification used by the National Integrated Drought Information System, which is a multi-agency government partnership that coordinates drought monitoring in the United States.


Clayton says Utah’s current struggles stretch back well past the state’s dry start to this winter.


“Up until these recent events, the situation was borderline dire,” he says. “Certainly not getting the precipitation we needed, and that extends back through the summer, all the way back into kind of the middle of last spring. It’s been very, very dry. We’ve seen some moderate increases in our statewide precipitation totals over the last month or so, again, not counting what was just received this week. Those have been helpful, but certainly not enough to sort of brighten the day in terms of our expectations for how we’re gonna do overall for this water year.” 


With global temperatures increasing, precipitation in the west decreasing, and both averages set for updates this year, the new measurements will create a messaging problem: just because it may look like the numbers are getting better compared to what is considered “normal,” that doesn’t always tell the whole story.


KPCW news reports on climate change issues are brought to you by the Park City Climate Fund at the Park City Community Foundation, an initiative that engages Park City in implementing local, high-impact climate solutions that have potential to be effective in similar communities.

Sean Higgins covers all things Park City and is the Saturday Weekend Edition host at KPCW. Sean spent the first five years of his journalism career covering World Cup skiing for Ski Racing Media here in Utah and served as Senior Editor until January 2020. As Senior Editor, he managed the day-to-day news section of skiracing.com, as well as produced and hosted Ski Racing’s weekly podcast. During his tenure with Ski Racing Media, he was also a field reporter for NBC Sports, covering events in Europe.
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