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Tahoe Weather

Tahoe is Weather Perfection

Sand Harbor sailboat210

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The salubrious climate of Lake Tahoe is the perfect match for the region's spectacular alpine scenery and our year-round outdoor lifestyle. During the summer months, the weather is practically ideal. In June, July, and August, the probability of sunny skies exceeds 90% on any given day, and the average afternoon high temperature ranges between 69 and 77 degrees. During winter, powerful Pacific storms dump 18 to 20 feet of snow at lake level, but statistically it falls on just 50 days, blessing winter sports enthusiasts with three days of fair weather for every day of fresh powder.

Few places on Earth can boast of a climate as inspiring for its contrast between soft summer serenity and dynamic winter weather. During the summer season, the region's consistently sunny days combine with mild temperatures and low humidity to create a unique mountain environment. The remarkable weather is the perfect complement to a day of hiking, fishing, boating, or swimming.

Lake Tahoe's celebrated climate is closely representative of the Sierra Nevada range as a whole. It is the interplay between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra barrier that creates the sharply defined seasonal weather patterns which bring variety and change. The Pacific Ocean is a great storm breeder in a zone stretching from north of the Hawaiian Islands to the shores of Alaska and northeastern Asia. Two semi-permanent atmospheric features are always present in this zone. First is the North Pacific High (high atmospheric pressure), where diverging air currents tend to subside producing a stable, fair weather regime (summer), and second, the Aleutian-Gulf of Alaska Low (low atmospheric pressure), where converging air streams tend to ascend creating conditions conducive to cloudiness and precipitation (winter).

When the Pacific High moves east and takes up a position over or near the Pacific coastline, it serves to block the movement of Pacific storms and forces them northward so that the storm track enters the continent over British Columbia and the Alaskan panhandle. It resides in this position most of the summer producing clear skies and a very warm and dry regime in the Sierra Nevada.

Tahoe sailboat Heavenly210

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Rarely in summer, but frequently in winter, this blocking dome of high pressure will recede well to the west and southward toward the Hawaiian region. Simultaneously, a long finger of low pressure and stormy weather will extend south from the Gulf of Alaska. This polar front is the source region for California-bound winter storms that travel west-to -east following the front and its associated upper atmospheric jet stream. The Sierra winter is made up of storm periods lasting several days or a week to 10 days. These wet periods are interspersed with fair conditions, which may prevail for several days or for as long as three to four weeks. Nearly all of the annual precipitation recorded at Lake Tahoe comes between November and May, much of it falling as snow.

A major contributing factor for Tahoe's big snowfall totals is that eastbound, Pacific-generated storms intensify as they are forced up and over the Sierra massif in a cooling process known as orographic uplift. In addition, the Sierra Nevada range often serves as a divide separating the relatively warm and moist airstreams originating over the Pacific Ocean, from cold and dry air masses from the interior of the North American continent. All this combines to give the Sierra high country an average seasonal snowfall total of more than 400 inches; in wet winters it accumulates to depths over 20 feet. The region's snowfall record is 73.6 feet (1906-07), while the deepest snowpack ever measured is 37.5 feet (March 1911).

Despite the bountiful snowfall, weather-wise locals know that the Tahoe Basin is actually in the "banana belt." Located east of the Sierra crest, Tahoe is spared from the heaviest rain and snow that falls on the west, or windward side of the range. Consider that Tahoe City averages slightly more than 32 inches of precipitation annually, while Blue Canyon on the Sierra west slope receives more than twice that amount with about 66 inches (Precipitation is rain and melted snow combined). There is little doubt that Tahoe's winter residents and visitors would not find the living so easy if annual snow and rainfall amounts were doubled.

Tahoe Hyatt catamaran210

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Lake Tahoe is a large body of water that has never been known to freeze, even during the coldest winters. The lake creates a maritime influence in the Tahoe Basin that keeps it cooler in summer and warmer in winter than the town of Truckee just 14 miles to the north. During California's summer heat waves, Truckee's high temperatures can soar above 90 degrees, but near Lake Tahoe temperatures are often 10 degrees cooler, or more. The lake's relatively warm water also affects snow levels. Although the town of Truckee is nearly 400 feet lower in elevation than Lake Tahoe, it averages 10 percent more snow each year due to colder temperatures and its proximity to Donner Pass.

Occasionally in summer, when weather conditions are just right, severe thunderstorms may form over the Lake Tahoe Basin. Thunderstorms can pack a deadly punch to hikers, boaters, and others exposed to its array of meteorological weapons—gusty winds, damaging hail, flash floods, and most dangerous of all, lightning. When enjoying an outdoor adventure at Lake Tahoe, always get the latest forecast before departing on your outing. If thunderstorms do develop, get off the mountaintops or the lake and seek shelter. Being safe during thunderstorm activity makes good sense and may even save your life. But all in all, the greatest risk during a Tahoe summer is from severe sunburn due to the clarity of the high elevation atmosphere. Always protect your skin from the sun!

The "off-peak" seasons of spring and fall bring their own magical charm to Lake Tahoe. During April, May and early June, storm activity diminishes rapidly and the colder temperatures of winter moderate. In Tahoe City during May, the average high is 60 degrees in the shade, but with an average 26 days of bright sunshine most days it feels much warmer. Overnight lows hover around 32 degrees, the perfect temperature range to enjoy Tahoe's famous spring skiing in the morning and then a round of golf in the afternoon.

Tahoe golden sunset210

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Autumn is spectacular in the Tahoe Basin. Aspen leaves shimmer with golden hues, red-humped Kokanee salmon spawn, and soft, calm days often infuse the deep blue lake with a mirror-like quality. High temperatures in September average 70 degrees and about 10 degrees cooler in October. Precipitation expectation increases during the course of the two-month period, but this time of year is often warm and dry. The fall season has always been a favorite for Tahoe aficionados who know that it's a good time to avoid the crowds and one of the best times of year for exploring the Sierra Nevada. 

It's always important to remember that weather and climate are different parts of the same animal. Climate is the accumulation of daily and seasonal weather events over a long period of time, while weather is the condition of the atmosphere at any particular time and place. The weather at Lake Tahoe has the ability to change moods in a flash, so visitors and locals should always pay attention to the forecast and keep their eyes to the sky. Mark Twain got it right when he wrote, "Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get."

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