… is it always gets worse*

Bruce Cockburn





Now that the 2022-23 meteorological winter is over, it’s safe to say that it was an abnormally wet and snowy winter. Some places in the Sierra Nevada, for example, have seen two to four times the normal amount of snow. 

Even southern Californians grappled with blizzards (not normal) and an avalanche was triggered on Mount San Jacinto near Palm Springs (not normal). Silverton, Colorado, was buried in several feet of snow, suffered an hours-long power outage, and was isolated from the outside world when the passes in both directions closed due to avalanches. Two skiers were killed by an avalanche near Vallecito Reservoir in southwestern Colorado. The tragedy was made all the more shocking by the relatively low-elevation (8,400 feet) at which the accident occurred, in a place that normally doesn’t receive enough snow to create significant avalanche hazards. 

You may have noticed that I used the term “normal” several times in the preceding paragraphs. But what does normal really mean? It seems so subjective, a somewhat derogatory descriptor of something boring. And yet, meteorologists and climate scientists use the term all the time to let us know whether a winter’s snowfall or temperatures fall within an average (or median) historic range or not¹. 

That makes sense. But weirdly, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determines its normals by looking only at the most recent three decades. So, for example, if one were to say the snow water equivalent at the Spratt Creek SNOTEL station in northeastern California is currently 450% of normal (the actual reading on March 3), they would mean that it’s four and a half times greater than the 1991-2020 median. Prior to May 2021, the normal was based on the period from 1981-2010, which was 

That, understandably, irks some folks, since it seems like a rather short period of time to use to define “normal.” Also, if those three decades were, say, drier than the decades that preceded them, wouldn’t that skew things? Why not go back to the beginning of record keeping? The National Weather Service has an answer: the criteria was chosen by the international meteorological community in the 1930s because many countries didn’t have reliable record keeping prior to 1900. So, the thirty-year standard was a bit of an accident of timing, and it stuck. 

Which is fine and good but it still leaves me feeling empty, kind of like when I eat a Blake’s Lotaburger and they forget to add the green chile. It just seems far more valuable to be able to compare current conditions to as deep a historic record as possible. The good news is, in addition to using the 30-year normal, NOAA also tracks the 20th century averages, so we can at least easily compare the new normal to the old and compare both to the 20th century average.

As you can see from the above graphics, the trouble with normal — especially when dealing with temperature — is it (almost) always gets worse. 

Departure from normal temperature and precipitation in Colorado. The yellow and orange blob at the center of the image, representing above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation, is over the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado. Source: National Weather Service. The purple splotch in the southwestern part of the state is right over Coal Bank Pass between Durango and Silverton. 

So, it was an above-normal winter in most of the West, but not all, as is evident in the graphic above. But, alas, the drought is not over — at least not in most places. Still, it’s remarkable how much improvement there’s been since 2021, especially in the Southwest. Arizona is almost completely out of drought.

Unfortunately, the outlook is not great for the Southwest, which is expected to be warmer and drier than normal over the next few months.


Foto Friday

A couple of weeks ago, a Greek person picked up a copy of my novel, Behind the Slickrock Curtain, and looked at it in a perplexed fashion (and they hadn’t even read the weirdness yet). 

“Slickrock?” he said. “What is slickrock.”

“Oh, just another name for sandstone,” I replied.


“Uhh, yeah. Like … limestone in Greece, only made of sand?” 

He nodded as if he understood, but I knew I had not adequately described slickrock or sandstone. I had failed to communicate the way sandstone captures the glow of a Utah sunset or seems, literally, to contain the pale blue glow of moonlight. I had left out the sensuousness of the stone, the way wind and water wear it down smooth, or the way it captures the warmth of the sun and holds it softly and how it feels against your flesh after immersing yourself in an icy, tadpole-teeming pothole and you climb out and plop face down naked on the stone. I was at a loss when trying to describe the metallic blood smell of the stone after the first drops of summer rain hit it, evaporating almost instantly. 

I could not convey the yearning I feel for sandstone when I haven’t seen or touched or smelled it in a long time.

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