Storm's Brewing: Truckee Tahoe's Forecasting Culture
Moonshine Ink | November 2011
I get all the news I need from the weather report.' ~ Paul Simon
It starts by noticing a shift — temperatures dropping, a cold wind, storm clouds cresting the horizon. In a place that sees some 300 days of sunshine a year, impending weather sparks anticipation, or for some, dread. But as soon as change hits the air, it's an automatic response — we read the forecast.
Everyone's routine for checking the weather varies. I scour the Internet — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's website for its regional 10-day outlook and forecast discussion, as well as TahoeWeatherDiscussion.com, Powdiction.com, the Sierra Avalanche Center, and finally, the snow reports at Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, or wherever I intend to ski that day. The Weather Channel's 'Local on the 8s,' when I had cable, was another part of my daily routine, just like breakfast.
In Truckee/Tahoe, where weather dictates life, checking the forecast is something of a ritual. Weather determines recreation and livelihood in Truckee/Tahoe no matter the season. The wind provides a playground for sailors, hang gliders, and even Tahoe surfers. In the summer, outdoor enthusiasts must be aware if there's a chance of afternoon thunder and lightning.
Homeowners have to watch their pipes during unseasonal freezes in the fall. And in the winter, the snow is our playground, though an incoming blizzard also means days of work for the massive snow removal industry in Truckee/Tahoe.
Perhaps it's because Tahoe is so weather-centric that we have a broad menu of forecasting resources, much of which is local: TV personas who preach, 'Every day is a good day;' Internet storm gurus; your neighbor the armchair forecaster; and finally, the scientists and history buffs who have the last word on every storm.
'Up here, yeah, I would say [weather] is a cultural stronghold,' said Eric Brandt, founder and owner of TahoeTV, who puts out a daily forecast. '[The weather] is a phenomena that you can’t get around. Life revolves around it — winter and summer.'
Every Day is a Good Day
Brandt's weather reports can be found in many places: the Internet, radio, TV. But they all have one underlining message: It's a great day in Truckee/Tahoe!
'Take every day as it comes is probably my best rule of thumb,' Brandt said.
Be it bluebird or blizzard, Brandt is outside covering the weather. He doesn’t do the forecasting firsthand; he gets his information from a variety of sources, mostly on the Internet. But Brandt sees his reports as more about getting people fired up.
'My approach is to pepper it with more personality than prognosis,' he said.
Living in Tahoe for more than 30 years, Brandt is familiar with the big years and the droughts, the summers and the winters, the shifts in weather patterns. He doesn’t give much credence to the forecasts that are more than a few days out. (How many times has a storm forecasted to dump 5 to 10 feet come and gone, leaving a third of that much snow?) But he does have fun with the folklore of forecasting.
Where the rest of the nation has the groundhog, Tahoe has its relative, the marmot. Punxatahoe Pete is a crotchety marmot that lives at the top of Squaw, according to Brandt.
'He comes out every fall and takes a look around at the conditions,' he said.
Tahoe also has it's own snow tree. Located off Highway 89, on the side of the bike path between Alpine Meadows and Tahoe City, is a beautiful cottonwood. Legend has it that as soon as this particular tree loses most of its leaves, Tahoe will see its first legitimate snowfall.
Bryan Allegretto, founder and owner of TahoeWeatherDiscussion.com, is frank about his interest in snow: He's obsessed. Always has been, always will be.
'It's not so much weather as it is snow and snowstorms,' the New Jersey native said. Allegretto's anticipation over an upcoming snowstorm was never fully satisfied until he moved to Tahoe, where moisture-heavy storms brewing over the ocean slam into the colder temperatures of the Sierra Nevada, creating the monstrous dumps we simultaneously love and hate.
'I would get so excited and so let down [over storms] in New Jersey,' Allegretto said. 'When I came to Tahoe, it was like, this is where I belong. This is where I was supposed to be living.'
Allegretto's obsession consumes him. His curiosity feeds his continuing education — he can spend hours scouring computer models. When he doesn’t understand something, he looks it up and continues on. Allegretto is not a formally trained meteorologist. He's a full-time accountant who studies the weather in the early morning hours of 4 or 5 a.m. before work, and again after he gets home in the evening.
'You’re so passionate about it, you can read your own books, do your own research,' Allegretto said. 'I don’t need to know how a weather model works. I just need it to be there.'
When a system is coming in, Allegretto checks four or five models every six hours. He’ll look at the variables, the wind speeds, the precipitation amounts, and how everything is trending and averaging as a whole. He also finds a lot of clues in ocean circulations and temperatures and trade winds, as well as in history, which lends context. Where most meteorologists are focusing on the next 10 days, no matter if its sunny or partly cloudy, Allegretto is scouring all of that information with one thing in mind: snow.
'I’m taking all that time and looking at when's the next big dump,' he said.
Allegretto's specialty is forecasting big weather events far in advance, though he stays vague on the details until the system comes into focus as it nears.
'When I say something, I seriously think it's going to happen,' Allegretto said. 'When it comes to big snowstorms, I’ll say that we’ll be getting something three weeks out.'
Allegretto's knack for long-term predictions is likely why his forecasts gained attraction quickly, first in casual conversations in the accounting office at Booth Creek (where he worked at the time), then in massive email blasts Allegretto sent out every morning to his coworkers, then for a Northstar weather blog. Last season, Allegretto wrote weather forecasts for Northstar, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Alpine Meadows, and Squaw Valley. He also blogged regularly at TahoeWeatherDiscussion.com. Launched in Dec. 2009, TahoeWeatherDiscussion.com had half a million hits last season alone. Some of the bigger storm days in February saw 8,000 people passing through his website a day. The website traffic absolutely follows storm patterns, but Allegretto also sees a rise in hits during dry spells, when readers are anxious for the next storm.
'I think a lot of my readers really appreciate the heads-up on the long-range forecast,' Allegretto said.
Allegretto is not alone in his obsession, or his blog. Other sites like Powdiction.com and forecasters like Tahoe Weather Geek, who reports for TahoeLoco.com, have popped up in recent years.
'It's a labor of love for all three of us,' said Nick Nauslar, one of three forecasters at Powdiction.com. 'We just enjoy sharing our weather knowledge for people out there.'
Unlike TahoeWeatherDiscussion.com, the forecasters at Powdiction.com all hold graduate degrees in meteorology. Out of the office, you’ll find the Powdiction trio in the mountains, enjoying whatever deck of cards Mother Nature and Old Man Winter hand them.
'Our local knowledge blended with our experience and education gives us a little better of a forecast,' said Nauslar, who also works at the Desert Research Institute doing weather research.
The Rise of the Armchair Forecaster
Beyond the Internet, go to a local bar or chat with a stranger on the chairlift and you’ll be sure to find plenty of locals engrossed in the weather who don’t publish their findings.
'We are obsessed with weather because the weather gives us our lifestyle and our profession,' said Steven Siig, a local cinematographer and filmmaker who is also a self-professed weather nerd.
'As a lifestyle, we’re always looking for the next storm,' said Siig. 'It's one of those things where any given weather pattern — it can always be a good thing.'
When something starts to brew, Siig's phone starts ringing. It's time to surf the lake; it's going to be a great day to film; let's hit the road and catch that storm.
Siig's homestyle forecasting bounces him between the Weather Channel to Noaa.gov to the FutureCast on Channel 3, and beyond. Each resource offers something different than the next.
'That's kind’ve my network,' Siig said.
While not a professional meteorologist, Siig takes his forecasting seriously. Not only does he have to regulate the weather for his career — he's always looking for prime conditions to shoot film in — but his family lives in an avalanche path in Alpine Meadows that is most hazardous after a southern storm blows in.
'Only by following the weather for years and years and years do you know about these things that could happen,' said Siig. 'And you want to be one step ahead.'
The Last Word
Local historian Mark McLaughlin waits until the storm clears to do his work.
'I do the analysis when [the storm] is all said and done. And I show the perspective to how it related to previous events,' McLaughlin said. 'I can tell you the weather from yesterday back to the beginning of the records.'
And he's always right, because it already happened.
McLaughlin's records are more than numbers. He puts every storm or season into context, and might compare it with another similar event that happened long ago. McLaughlin also puts the hype over a recent storm into check. If you think the winter of 2010/11 was big — and it was — then look at the numbers recorded in 1861/62. From the beginning of December to the end of January, the western slope of the Sierra Nevada recorded eight to nine feet of rain. The delta expanded and became an inland sea, McLauglin said. Sacramento was underwater. At a time when the young California government was deciding where its new capital would be located, the entire legislature was forced back to San Francisco.
'It was epic stuff,' McLaughlin said. 'I still consider it the biggest anomaly winter since the Gold Rush.'
Humans have always been enamored with snowfall, McLauglin continued. And without today's technology, people dealt with massive winters stoically.
'And it wasn’t even that long ago,' he said.
As someone who has lived in the area for well over 30 years, this next winter will be McLaughlin's first with a snow blower.
McLaughlin is compiling his research on weather in the region of Truckee, Lake Tahoe, Reno, and Carson City into a new book that will likely be published next summer. Where the gates of winter open and fresh powder abounds from November until May, only to be followed with several months of endless sunshine, this area could be considered weather perfection.
'If you like the snow, the Central Sierra is an awesome place to be,' McLaughlin said.