Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth
Weather, Climate Change, and Finding Deep Powder in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and Around the World
By Jim Steenburgh
2014 Utah State University Press
Those who partake in winter snow sliding activities, and even those who don’t, are familiar with the phrase “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” It’s the now famous slogan that has been copyrighted by the State of Utah, appears in bold print on our license plates, and is used in marketing campaigns by organizations and resorts to promote the wonderful activity right here in out home state.
Jim Steenburgh, in his book Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth, is quick to point out that it might not necessarily be the case. A professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah, and an avid backcountry and resort skier, Steenburgh is highly regarded in the subject of Utah weather, and our world famous snow. An editor at the Salt Lake Tribune coined the phrase back in 1960, ripped from the popular Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (Greatest Show on Earth). The slogan survived a legal challenge, and is in widespread use today. Steenburgh poses the question early “Is Utah’s snow really the greatest on Earth?” He points to the Alta Lodge website which states, “it is a scientific fact that Utah’s snow is lighter and drier.” A common misconception, Steenburgh points out- Utah snow isn’t even the lightest and driest in the US.
The key, he points out is water content, and measuring the snow water equivalent. While these figures vary regionally in the US, the truth remains that the famous “Sierra Cement” is the result of a maritime snow climate, which tend to produce “heavy snow,” but that portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado(!) sustain lower temperatures, and lighter snow. These areas reside in the continental climate, while Utah has a transitional climate. Steenburgh points out that these are of course based on averages, and water content can vary significantly from storms. He also points out that as noted by Utah skiing legend Ed LaChappelle, the driest snow doesn’t necessarily make for the best skiing. It has to have some “body” to it to provide good flotation. Utah he points out, and backed by meteorological records, gets theses ingredients in spades. The vertical profile of snow water content, being “right side up” or “upside down” determine the riding conditions.
Steenburgh also dispels a popular notion, one also trumpeted in excess by local marketers of the “Great Salt Lake Effect” which is thought by many to produce periods of heavy snowfall, but in actuality, results in about 5% of the average precip in the Wasatch.
In total, Secrets is a must have for anyone who spends time in search of powder in Utah, or anywhere in the World. Chapters are devoted to microclimates, and why some areas get more snow (or less) than others, and climates of popular powder destinations around the world are detailed. A history of avalanche control is covered, and a chapter on backcountry touring, and avalanche science. Everything you always wanted to know about how snow forms, and how to follow forecasts to see how much and where, is in the book. It’s a must have for any fan of snow, sure to get you excited about winter, and give you an understanding of Utah snow, and a bevy of conversation topics for the chairlift ride. The last chapter is sobering, that of global warming and snow trends for the future. We’ll skip it, I don’t want to give away the ending…