Scientist Probes Secrets of Utah's Famed Powder Snow

Dec 22, 2014

Jim Steenburgh began probing the deep questions about the Greatest Snow on Earth since he settled in Utah after college.

An atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah, he’s sharing the secrets of the state’s famed powder in a new book. What makes Utah’s snow great for skiing?

“We get lots of these what I call Goldilocks storms that are not too big.  They’re not too small,” Steenburgh explained during a recent interview on KUER’s Radio West. “They produce the right amounts of snow for a good deep powder day. And then the storm comes stacked in the right way.”

Steenburgh also dispels common myths about Utah’s snow -- like the idea it’s dryness that makes Utah’s powder extraordinary. He points out that parts of Colorado and the Great Lakes produce snow that contains even less moisture.

And that “lake effect” we prize for heaping snow on the Wasatch Front? Well, he says its big impact is in October and November at the front of the snow season -- not in the midst of it. A warming planet will mean wetter snow and the ruin of some ski areas, he says.

“I would expect that the quality would decrease some,” Steenburgh said. “However, if you think about it, it’s still going to be better snow than many other places. You know, the upper Cottonwoods, they’re going to be one of the places where the ski industry can continue to survive.”

Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth is available at local bookstores.