Getting a Lift from Snow Making

Artificial snow kept Snowbowl runs open during January and February 2015 in the wake of record low precipitation.

It was Feb. 22 and around 2 PM, it was almost 50 degrees outside. The balmy temps were atypical for what is traditionally a frigid winter month —and would go on record as one of the hottest Feburarys in Flagstaff’s history. Then it finally happened. It snowed. And NAU students immediately focused on posting a picture on Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat.

After being on a 33 day hiatus, winter finally hit the Flagstaff area and dumped 8.6 inches of snow during the night of Feb. 22 and through Feb. 23. Thanks to this very temporary reprieve from the decade-long drought, Flagstaff has received 25.9 inches of snowfall for the year—which is still well below the historic average of 35 inches for January and February.

“It was a basic pattern change,” said the National Weather Service’s head meteorologist Brian Klimowski. “What happened was we had a large ridge, which was centered over the west coast, which kept us very warm and dry. We have been much above normal, we actually had one of the warmest starts to Feburary on record over the first 15 or 20 days. What happened was that ridge moved west; it’s what we call retrograded to the west. It allowed troughs, or disturbances, to move down that ride on the eastern side of the ridge and impact our area. Two storm sytems over the past nine days slid down the east side of the ridge and caused the precipitation we saw.”

As the town of Flagstaff was receiving all of this snow, the San Francisco Peaks were receiving some much-needed real powder, with the top of the mountain receiving 26 inches of snow over the 22nd and 23rd of Feburary. Employees at Snowbowl Mountain Resort saw dollar signs falling from the sky instead of snowflakes.

“Well definitely here over the last 10 days, our visitor counts have almost doubled from what we were seeing in Feburary,” said Director of Marketing and Public Relations Jason Stratton. “It’s had a huge impact for us, which not only impacts us here on the mountain, but impacts the town of Flagstaff.”

For all the NAU students who bought season passes, their investment finally kicked in and the fresh powder drew all of the experienced riders to the mountain in droves.

“In the powder, you have to be more forward, more balanced,” Snowbowl ski coach Kathryn Bowen said. “In the man made snow, you don’t have to try as hard, so beginners typically prefer man made snow.”

But the recent slew of storms not only affects people visiting San Francisco Peaks, it also affects how the city of Flagstaff will handle their water supply over the next year.  Feburary is historically dry in Flagstaff.

“From month to month, we don’t get too concerned with dry months,” said City of Flagstaff Water Resources Manager Erin Young . “I guess we get more concerned after several dry years. So, what we do each year is we evaluate where we are at in March. In March or April, we look at wake-water supplies, or the supply which comes through Lake Mary. We also pay attention to the inner basin, and how much snow-pack there is in the inner basin. This evaluation, which ends in April, dictates whether we operate under a dry scenario or a wet scenario.

In 2013, Flagstaff sold 1,929 acre feet of the city’s reclaimed water, of which NAU used 121 acre feet. The golf courses took 1,093 acre feet, and Snowbowl Mountain Resort took 189 acre feet.

A dry year in Flagstaff is when upper Lake Mary is below 65 percent capacity,” Young said. “The last couple years, we have been below 65 percent capacity, and we just don’t utilize the lake to its fullest, because it’s not full (of water). So then we just have to rely more on groundwater pumping. Snowbowl uses more than NAU, but less than manufacturing, and golf courses, by far, utilize the majority of [reclaimed water].”

In dry months, like Febuary, the acre feet that goes toward artifical snow-making machines on Snowbowl Mountain Resort is crucial for keeping the slopes open. Snow making supporters claim it has become has a critical engine in Flagstaff’s economy.

“Having a major attraction that brings in over 150,000 visitors a year certainly helps with tourism in town,” Stratton said. “It impacts hotels, restaurants, gas stations, local retailers and just winter business in general. It’s vital for the success of Snowbowl to have man-made snow up here, and this winter up until now, is proof of why we need it. If we did not have that man-made snow capability, we likely would have had to close for the month of January and Febuary.”

While Flagstaff was in a dry month in February, on the other side of the country, snowstorms pounded the Northeast, setting precipitation records and creating havoc for residents. “The atmosphere sets up in wave, almost like ocean waves,” Klimowski said. “You have ridges in some areas, and trophs in other areas. And these are on a scale, which are about the same scale as the country. That is if we have a big ridge over the Western United States, we often have a big troph over the Eastern United States, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Boston alone received 64.8 inches of snow in Feburary, beating their old record for the month by over 23 inches. Meanwhile, in Flagstaff, we have failed to reach our average snowfall totals the last couple years, falling short of our almost 100 inches of annual average snowfall. While some people may not like artifical snow being used on the mountain, it has certainly helped keep people coming into town to go snowboarding or skiing.

“Well it’s completely, 100 percent, vital to our success,” Stratton said. “You take last winter for example, the first full year of snow-making, we had the second driest natural snowfall year on record, only 72 inches of snow fell. Yet we still saw over 122 days of operations last winter and over 150,000 visitors. So without snowmaking, we estimate we may have been open 7 days last winter.”

If Feburary continues to follow this dry pattern over the next few years, the addition of snowmaking machines on the mountain will prove to be a vital linchpin to keeping Snowbowl open and keeping students drawn to NAU’s Mountain Campus.

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