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Dreaming of a white Christmas?

December 21, 2012

Massive snowfalls are rare in the Owens Valley, but back in 1916 Big Pine got hit with 3-4 feet. Above, now-vintage autos slide past what looks like the original Carroll’s Market. Photo courtesy Eastern California Museum, County of Inyo

The iconic American image of Christmas morning is covered in snow – not the scraped, shoveled, heavily trodden, 2-day-old grey slush, but a pristine, freshly-fallen blanket of pure white.
It doesn’t matter if those Christmas cards or Lifetime movie versions are on display in Florida or Los Angeles; snow would provide the final touch to the holiday – the insulator from all the last-minute shopping, the long lines and longer lists, all the clutter of Christmas.
In the Owens Valley, snow is at least visible in the mountains by late December, either a light dusting or a thick, downy covering. The beauty of fresh Christmas morning snow is that it takes second place to other Christmas morning rituals. It can sit there all day without being defiled, or shoveled.
But, what are the chances of waking up Christmas morning to that thick, white down comforter spread over Owens Valley front yards?
Slim to none. That pop you just heard is the bubble of hope bursting.
The valley had “a chance (of precipitation) Saturday through Sunday night,” said local forecaster Dennis Mattinson. “But, Christmas Eve and Day, we’ll probably just be cloudy and breezy.” Not music to Inyo ears.
Even residents of Mammoth cannot anticipate fresh snow on Dec. 25. They will have snow, but the shoveled, mounded, abused variety.
According to Mattinson, the valley’s best shot was Saturday night. The current 10-degrees-below-normal trend will be hanging around through Monday, so night temperatures will be low enough to turn rain into snow.
The only real encouragement coming from Mattinson is the fact that the front moving from Mono through Inyo starting last Friday is moving at a snail’s pace. The implications are: if it grinds to a halt, the Saturday night snow has a very slim chance of not hitting until Monday and once it hits, the front will hang around for a good, long while.
But, don’t get the shovels out just yet. Mammoth will probably be the biggest beneficiary of this slow-moving snow/rain-maker.
Mattinson acknowledges that Owens Valley weather is mercurial. “You never know, from mile to mile,” he said.
(For the latest weather info, check Mattinson’s website at
Selflessly, if somebody gets snow for Christmas, let it be Mammoth. The economic impact will still be felt in the valley.
After a brutally dry 2011-12, Mammoth has been gifted with plenty of snow early in the season when it’s needed most to get Southern Californians headed north on a regular basis.
Pre-Dec. 21, season total for Mammoth is 12 feet, 10 inches – twice last year’s total through the end of 2011. While October 2012 snowfall was just short of the same period in 2011, November brought 60 inches, twice as much of the white stuff that fell in November 2011.
This December has been even kinder on Mammoth with 75.6 inches recorded as of Dec. 21. That’s 73.6 more inches than fell in December 2011.
For Mammoth, snow is an economic necessity; for the Owens Valley and Inyo County, snow would just be a nice addition to the holidays, for everybody who doesn’t have to scrape it off the highways.
If the Owens Valley’s history is an indicator of the future, Christmas snow is still iffy.
According to Florene Trainor, CalTrans District 9 public information officer, the last time road crews were called out on Christmas morning in the valley was Dec. 25, 2008; time before that was Dec. 25, 2003 – not enough data to see a trend.
The AccuWeather website concedes that forecasting snow is problematic. Meteorologists use weather models, choosing one or two for comparison out of dozens of available models.
“Each of the computer models handles the atmosphere slightly different,” according to AccuWeather forecaster Elliot Abrams. “One problem with the models is, even though one model may handle today’s storm better than another model, there’s no assurance it will handle the next one better.”
The National Weather Service provides as slim a ray of hope. But, the forecasted low for Bishop Thursday night was 16, eight significant degrees warmer than the actual low, so the NWS may have Monday night into Tuesday’s forecast wrong as well.
The NWS predicts a cloudy Monday night with a low around 21 and a mostly sunny Christmas day, with a high near 48 for Bishop. Lone Pine’s prediction is nearly identical, with the exception of “partly” sunny.
If the Owens Valley does not get its blanket of snow for Christmas, at least we’ve got a shot at sunshine.

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