In the wake of Utah’s latest snowstorm, it may seem like it’s been an especially cold winter.
Technically, it has been colder in Salt Lake City lately, when compared with average temperatures for the area dating back to the 19th century. But in actuality, it’s only been “slightly colder” than normal.
The average high in Salt Lake City since Nov. 1 has been about 32.6 degrees, according to Mike Seaman, a lead forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Salt Lake City.
“Normally, we’d be at 33.4,” he said. “So, not quite a full degree below normal.”
According to the weather service, temperatures have been also somewhat below average for three of the past four months in Salt Lake City:
November • 37.2 degrees (4.5 degrees below normal)
December • 33 degrees (0.8 of a degree above normal)
January • 33.5 degrees (2.1 degrees below normal)
February • 32 degrees, as of Feb. 20 (3.3 degrees below normal)
Those average highs are nowhere near Salt Lake City’s winter records, though — an average high of 29.6 degrees in November 1880; 18 degrees in December 1932; 11.5 degrees in January 1949; and 16.3 degrees in February 1933.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s significant,” Seaman said of this year’s cooler temperatures. But cold winters are also “a little different” in Salt Lake City because of inversions, he said.
“Some of our coldest years are actually our driest years, when that really cold air gets stuck down here in the valley,” he noted. “We can have several weeks where we’re well below normal down here, and Alta’s sitting in the 50s. But yet, we’re dry.”
It’s just ‘snowed and snowed and snowed’
With such an active snow season, Salt Lake City hasn’t experienced as many inversions this season, which means temperatures haven’t been as low as one would expect.
For the same reason, though, the snowier weather may be why it’s felt considerably colder lately.
“Personally, that’s my perception,” Seaman said. “It seems like it’s just been snowing and cold for a long time. You always hear people talking about how, ‘Oh, back in the day it used to snow like this.’ And it feels like one of those winters when it just snowed and snowed and snowed.”
By comparison, in terms of significance, it’s “definitely been a wetter year than we typically see,” Seaman said.
Salt Lake City International Airport in particular has received about 1.66 inches more precipitation than normal since Oct. 1, when the water year began.
“What’s more significant is that the mountains — which is where most of our water comes from — are running well above normal,” Seaman noted.
Statewide, Seaman said Utah is at about 150% more precipitation than normal, adding that Alta and Brighton ski resorts specifically have both received more than 500 inches.
That surplus is good amid Utah’s long-term, extreme drought. But “obviously,” Seaman said, “we still have a way to go.”
February, March and April are generally the wettest months for Utah, he said, but there are no guarantees. For example, last winter started out strong with a lot of snow in December, “and then it just completely shut off.”
“So there’s always a fear that that could happen,” he said. “But, right now, it doesn’t look like that.”
The latest storm stood to put another 2 feet — “maybe even 3 or 4” — of snow on the ground in the mountains this week, he said. “And it looks like we’ll continue that way into March.”
Whether the favorable weather patterns will hold through all of March and into April is a matter of debate.
In the meantime, two big questions remain: How is the snowpack looking? And is there potential for flooding?
The answers: “Looking great, and we don’t know,” Seaman said, adding that there’s “certainly the potential we could see some flooding issues this spring.”
“We have so much water up in the mountains,” he said, “and if we get too warm too fast, that’s going to come down pretty quickly.”
“Ideally, you just kind of have a gradual warm-up, and just bring everything down in an orderly fashion,” he said. “It’s too early to really tell how it’s going to pan out.”