Snow near Summit Lake northwest of Steamboat Springs is more than 15 feet deep
April 7, 2014
Steamboat Springs — The snow in the mountains outside Steamboat Springs is more than 15 feet deep, and the photographic evidence is eye popping.
A photo of a U.S. Forest Service employee standing in a 194-inch-deep snow pit on Buffalo Pass is giving rise to comparisons to the snowpack records established in the spring of 2011 on the Continental Divide northwest of Steamboat.
The photograph circulating this week on Facebook shows Hahn's Peak Ranger District GIS specialist Nick Bencke standing with a long measuring pole and a shovel in a deep hole in the snow cut with a series of terraces leading down to the bottom. It was taken April 1. And although the surface snow has settled since then, the dramatic snow pit is vivid demonstration of just how deep the snow is in the mountains this spring.
Bencke said a more recent hole dug on April 6 was 185 inches deep. Any way you shovel it, the snow is more than 15 feet deep.
"It was our 19th annual USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) pit dug with George Ingersol," Bencke wrote in an email Monday afternoon. “Record snow depth! He probed our test area, which is in the same general area every year, to get the most representative snow depth."
The site of the pit is on a hillside about a half mile east of Summit Lake. Bencke wrote that Ingersol's probing revealed some places where the snow was 16 feet deep, but he rejected them, feeling that wind played too big a part in the depth at those spots.
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"Either way it was quite a dig," Bencke wrote. "Unbelievable pit. High density snow too."
Retired U.S. Forest Service avalanche expert Art Judson, of Steamboat Springs, who co-authored a book on the science of snow, said the April 1 measurement was 9 inches deeper than a measurement taken at the same place on April 5, 2011, when the final snowpack reached record levels later in the spring.
The Facebook post and the same photo posted at the Web page of the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service originally described the snow depth as 196 inches, but that amount has since been corrected to 194 inches, Judson said.
So, how does snow depth on Buffalo Pass this month compare to 2011? The answer is tricky, because the USGS site in the photograph is not the same as the widely reported Tower snowpack measuring site that is maintained and monitored on Buffalo Pass by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The Tower site never reached 194 inches in 2011, a year in which the Yampa River, where it enters Steamboat Springs, overflowed its banks to an extent not seen since the early 1980s.
A hand measurement made Monday at Tower confirmed the snow stakes there reflect a depth of 156 inches, Judson reported.
There "is quite a difference between the Tower reading today and their pit, but as you know, snow depth varies, and this winter there were several days with strong winds, which could account for some of the depth difference," Judson said Monday.
The Tower site recorded some all-time records in 2011.
On April 23, 2001, Mike Gillespie, the former Colorado snow survey supervisor for the NRCS, confirmed that the measured snow depth at Tower had set a new record of 180 inches (15 feet), eclipsing the previous record – the 175-inch snow depth recorded on April 25, 1978.
However, the NRCS is more interested in reporting how much water is contained in the snowpack, and on May 5, 2011, after that April saw 27 days of snow, State Conservationist Allen Green confirmed to Steamboat Today that the Tower measuring site had set an all-time record in water content, not just for the location, but for the entire state.
Tower "reached a total (snow) accumulation for this season over 200 inches deep, with 72.6 inches of water content," Green said in 2011. "This exceeds the previous record reading of 71.1 inches of water equivalent measured in 1978, also on Buffalo Pass."