Editor’s Note: Nature’s Corner is a new monthly column that will provide answers about our region’s natural environment.

As we all wait and pray for snow, it might help things along if we understand how our storms work.Looking at Donner Summit as our weather forecaster, we learn that storms, in general, enter the Basin over this behemoth from the Gulf of Alaska, barreling in from the northwest. 


The ‘how’ goes like this: When a saturated air mass, driven by the jet stream, is forced over higher elevations, the mass cools 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet gained. The catalyst for heavy snow is the act of moisture being forced up and over the Sierra range. Then, as the now drier air mass descends on the lee (downwind) side of the range, it warms 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit every 1,000 feet down. Consider Interstate 80. Blue Canyon sits at approximately 5,200 feet and receives an annual 68 to 70 inches of precipitation. Donner Summit, located approximately 1,800 feet higher, receives approximately 54 inches, but most of it as snow. Once the air descends east of Donner Summit, it warms and becomes drier. It all has to do with orographic enhancement (new word for the day), when air is lifted up a mountain range and forced to cool.

Imagine a tumbleweed of air and moisture being blown to higher ground, and then tumbling down the other side. That’s your winter storm!

~ Do you have a nature-related question about our area? Tell us at Mark McLaughlin ( contributed to this article.


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