Where does the Deepest Snow on Earth Accumulate?
Where does the Deepest Snow on Earth Accumulate?
As the warm and relatively snowless winter of 2011-2012 progresses in the contiguous United States (I write this as a big snowstorm develops in the west-central plains!), some other parts of the world have been experiencing some extraordinary snowfalls, specifically in Alaska and Europe. So, I thought I’d take a look at what the greatest depths of snow on record might be.
Snowiest Places in the World
It is likely that probably the snowiest regions in the world are in the coastal mountains of British Columbia and southern Alaska above the 3,000 foot level. Unfortunately, there are no weather sites to make measurements in these areas. The Thompson Pass location in Alaska (mentioned below) is indicative of how much snow probably falls in such locations. The Thompson Pass site is no longer making observations. What we do have records for in North America are noted below.
The snowiest place we have measurements from (historically-speaking) in North America are the two sites in the mountains of western Washington (both situated around 5,000-6,000 feet) on the slopes of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker. At both places world records have been established for greatest annual snowfall:
Greatest seasonal snowfall: 1,140” at Mount Baker Ski Resort 1998-1999
Greatest 12-month snowfall: 1,224.5” at Paradise Rainier Ranger Station between Feb. 19, 1971 and Feb. 18, 1972
The greatest depth achieved at either location was 367” at Paradise R.S. on March 10, 1956.
However, it is in the Sierra of California that even greater depths of snow have been achieved, specifically at Tamarack, a site located at 7000’ near where the Bear Valley Ski Resort is now in the central Sierra. In March 1911 the snow depth reached an amazing 451” (37.5 feet!), the greatest snow depth ever measured anywhere in North America (but not the world!). A seasonal total of 884” fell at Tamarack during 1906-1907, a Sierra and thus California record.
Other North American sites recording phenomenal seasonal snowfalls and depths include:
974.1” Thompson Pass, Alaska (just north of Valdez) in 1952-1953. Maximum depth unknown, the Alaska state record for such is 345” at White Mountain March 1, 1942.
963” Mt. Copeland (near Revelstoke), British Columbia, Canada in 1971-1972. Maximum depth unknown.
903” Crater Lake, Oregon in 1949-1950. Maximum depth 252” on April 3, 1983.
846.8” Alta, Utah (in the Wasatch Mountains) in 1982-1983. Maximum depth 179” on April 7, 1958.
837.5” Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado (in the San Juan Mountains) in 1978-1979. Maximum depth 251” on March 31, 1979.
Valdez, Alaska is the snowiest sea-level town in the world with an average of 320” falling each season. This winter has been one of its busiest with 104.9” this past January alone (reaching a maximum depth of 84” on January 12th). So far this season 339.1” has already (as of Feb. 3) accumulated at Valdez.
The port of Valdez on Alaska’s south-central coastline is the snowiest sea-level town in the world with an average of 320” of snowfall per season. Photo by Don Pitcher.
Here is a list of the 10 snowiest locations in the U.S. by annual average snowfall (various periods of record):
680” Paradise Rainier Ranger Station, Washington
552” Thompson Pass, Alaska
530” Mt. Baker Lodge, Washington
530” Crater Lake, Oregon
516” Alta, Utah
471” Soda Springs, California
445” Tamarack, California
442” Stampede Pass, Washington
436” Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado
429” Silver Lake Brighton, Utah
Impressive as the depths recorded in North America might seem, the deepest snow on earth accumulates in the Japanese Alps of Honshu Island around the 2,000-6,000’ level. The average annual snowfall is estimated to be in the 1200-1500” range (see The Climate of Japan by E. Fukui p. 171). On Feb. 14, 1927 a snow depth of 465.4” was measured on Mt. Ibuki at 5,000 feet. In fact, these amazing snow depths are a singular tourist attraction since a highway that transects the mountains is kept open all winter. It is known as the Yuki-no-Otani Snow Canyon.
A roadside and topside view of the famous Yuki-no-Otani Snow Canyon in the Japanese Alps of Honshu Island. The greatest snow depths ever measured on earth are in this region. Photos from buzzhunt.com, photographer(s) unknown.
Even low-level (in fact sea level) locations on the west coast of Honshu have recorded incredible snowfall and snow depths. Only Valdez, Alaska is snowier in this regard. Tsukayama recorded 68.2” of snow in 24 hours on December 30-31, 1960, a world record for a low elevation site. The snow depths are so extreme in the towns of this region that warm-water sprinklers are imbedded in the streets to melt the snow.
Snowfall in the towns along the Sea of Japan in Niigata Prefecture are so deep that artificial snow-melting systems must be employed. These warm-water sprinklers, which run down the middle of a street in Imokawa, keep the community functioning during the winter. Photo by M. Ishii.
The Alps of Europe above the 6,000-foot level also have recorded exceptional snow depths. Santis, Switzerland (elevation 8,200’) reported a snow depth of 325” in April 1999 following one of Europe’s snowiest winters. A world record point snowfall of 67.8” once fell in just 19 hours at Bessans in the French Alp region of Savoie on April 5-6, 1959. This winter has seen some very impressive snowfall in the Alps and on January 24th (last month) a depth of 226” was reported at the ski resort St. Anton Am Arlberg in Austria at the 2,800-meter (9,240-foot) level. Perhaps the deepest snow on record for the Balkans has fallen just this past week in Serbia where depths of up to 78” have been reported.
Curiously, one of the snowiest places in the world is in the Western Great Caucus Mountains of Russia near Turkey and the Black Sea. This is the region where the winter Olympics will next be held. Achishko (elevation 6,200’) has measured snow depths as high as 315”. Snow depths in the Swedish and Norwegian mountains reach up to 20 feet during particularly snowy winters.
The deepest undrifted snow reliably measured at a low level site in the U.K. was 83" at Forest-in-Teesdale in northeast England on March 14, 1947. The site rests at an elevation of 1305 feet and much deeper snow depths have been seen at mountain top sites like Ben Nevis (4406').
OTHER SNOWY PLACES
Prodigious snowfalls occur in high mountain areas all over the world, but by and large these places are uninhabited. Particularly snowy mountains include the Alps of the South Island of New Zealand above 3,000 to 4,000 feet. The southern tip of the Andes near Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia, in Chile and Argentina, experiences tremendous snow accumulations above the 3,000- to 4,000-foot level as do the southern flanks of the high Himalayas east of the 80° longitude.
Surprisingly, the arctic and Antarctic receive very small amounts of snowfall due to lack of atmospheric moisture. It is estimated, in fact, that the South Pole is one of the driest places on earth. It is impossible to actually measure precipitation here because of the high winds, but less than one-tenth of an inch of precipitation (just one or two inches of snow) probably falls on an annual basis.
P.S. For metric conversions please note that 1” is about 2.5 cm and one meter about 3.3 feet.
Christopher C. Burt
KUDOS: Stephen Burt for U.K. snow information.