Snowmaker storm of epic proportions shifting into SoCal
It has the potential to become a snowmaker of epic proportions: A brutal winter storm sweeping through California is expected to bring rain, sleet and snow from the Oregon border to the deserts near Mexico.
Forecasters say “all eyes” are Thursday through Saturday, when even Southern California could see several feet of fresh powder in the mountains around Los Angeles. The National Weather Service has issued a snowstorm warning in the mountains of LA and Ventura County – only the second time since a similar storm in 1989.
“It’s bringing all that cold air to Southern California — we’re getting the full brunt,” meteorologist David Sweet said of the incoming system.
Temperatures were expected to be as much as 20 degrees below normal and snow was already beginning to fall in parts of Antelope Valley by Wednesday afternoon, while hail pounded the sidewalk in Highland Park and Pasadena. Local residents reported a snow drift in La Crescenta, and 50 mph gusts raged in Thousand Oaks and Agoura.
“It’s got the cold air, it’s got the humidity, it’s got high winds,” said Sweet, who works with the Oxnard Weather Service. “This is an ideal situation for a large weathermaker with enormous implications.”
In the Los Angeles area, snowfalls at elevations of 4,500 feet or higher could be as high as 5 feet, with some isolated instances of snow as high as 8 feet, according to forecasters. Areas at elevations of 2,500 to 4,000 feet — including Tejon Pass — could see up to 12 inches of snow, while areas at 1,500 to 2,500 feet could see up to 4 inches, including Antelope Valley.
The Weather Service also issued a flood warning for large parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, where up to 5 inches of rain is possible between Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon.
This week’s storm is unusual even in a winter of unusual events, climate experts say. The state was already defying forecasts for a dry La Niña-driven winter when a series of nine atmospheric river storms battered California in January — the wettest three-week period on record, state officials said.
Early February marked a notable return to drought, with less than an inch of rainfall across the country. Now local residents are being battered by winds and are faced with dangerous driving conditions and snow. Should projections materialize, the LA and Ventura County mountains could have the “greatest amount of 24- [to] 48-hour snowfall for decades,” according to the weather service, which rivals the 1989 winter storm.
Daniel McEvoy, a regional climatologist at the Western Regional Climate Center, said the rare system is part of a larger circulation pattern in the western United States that has lasted through most of the winter and has trapped a lot of cold air.
“This has been one of the coldest winters for many places in many decades,” McEvoy said, “so the fact that we’re having another cold storm this winter isn’t that surprising, but the magnitude — and what the ingredients are at the facility that.” particularly affecting Southern California looks pretty rare.
The depression formed off western Canada, he said. Within the system are several “waves of energy” driven by the flow of the jet stream, or air currents in the upper layer of the atmosphere that direct weather systems from west to east.
While not like the “classic” atmospheric flows that hit the state in late December and early January, the system will combine with moisture over the Pacific as it moves south, signaling heavy rain and snow.
The impact of the storm is expected to be widespread and potentially dangerous throughout California, including “large swaths of our freeways and freeways that are covered in snow,” said Hannah Chandler-Cooley, a meteorologist with the Sacramento Weather Service. The agency is advising people to avoid travel, especially between Thursday afternoon and Friday, and to prepare for hazards like fallen trees and power outages.
On Wednesday night, reports of snow and sleet — or giving way to hail — poured in from residents in several areas across the state, including downtown Sacramento, the San Joaquin Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains, with officials warning of worse severe weather.
Around Sacramento, the main problem are the foothills and mountains, as well as the northern Sacramento Valley, where snow could lie at elevations of up to 500 feet — basically down to the valley floor, Chandler-Cooley said.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the best chances for accumulation are around the Santa Lucias on the Central Coast, according to NWS meteorologist Brayden Murdock. Though the storm has been relatively dry so far, it will soon gain some moisture as it makes its way south toward LA, he said.
“It’s a rare setup for us,” Murdock said. “If this whole system had been shifted a little more to the east, it probably would have been more of a dry, strong wind event, but since it has the ability to interact with the Pacific, that’s why we get all this moisture on top.”
High winds in the Bay Area have knocked over trash cans, basketball hoops and shopping cart holders. A gust of 73 mph was recorded on the Golden Gate Bridge on Tuesday afternoon, while an anemometer on San Francisco’s Twin Peaks measured one at 63 mph.
Firefighters and law enforcement responded to a series of downed trees and branches, including a eucalyptus, falling on the westbound lanes of Interstate 80 on the Bay Bridge, blocking the tunnel. And at least one building in San Francisco has had its roof partially blown off.
Power outages in Northern California and the Central Coast were also widespread — more than 172,000 at peak Tuesday night — and several communities, homes and businesses were still without power Wednesday. In Menlo Park, traffic lights from the 101 freeway to El Camino were mostly out of order.
Further inland, a six-mile stretch of Interstate 15 near California’s Nevada border was closed for about 12 hours in both directions on Wednesday due to icy road conditions as the onset of the storm moved into the region.
Meanwhile, Southern California is bracing for rain and snow to increase Thursday through Friday.
“All systems are headed for a large and unusual storm,” the weather service said in its afternoon update.
Tommy Perez, 41, of Palmdale, said he remembered seeing 2 feet of snow in the area about five years ago.
Perez, who picked up a meal from the California Fresh Grill, said he and his family heard about the approaching storm and decided to pack snow chains in case road conditions got tough.
“We have things for the car just in case,” said Perez.
California Department of Transportation spokesman Marc Bischoff said the agency already had 24-hour crews stationed on the Grapevine, where they deployed snowplows and sprinkled brine on the roads to keep them from freezing.
“We’re always worried about the mountain regions because that’s where the precipitation will fall first, and especially because the snow depth will be so low and the temperatures will be so cold,” said Bischoff. In addition to the Grapevine, CalTrans also focused on State Routes 14, 58 and 33 as well as State Routes 2 and 39 in the Angeles National Forest.
“If you don’t have to drive anywhere on one of these roads for the duration of the storm, then don’t drive — it’s the best choice you can make,” he said. He added that State Route 33 has been closed since January’s atmospheric river storms, so those tempted to take that road to view the snow “can save themselves a trip.”
Referring to last fall’s seasonal outlook, which predicted another dry winter, climatologist McEvoy said the wet system points to long-term forecasting challenges. Since about November, the jet stream has been carving out an area of deep pressure that persists across much of the west coast.
“The atmosphere has locked into this pattern this winter and it doesn’t look like it’s going to break any time soon,” he said. “It’s a pattern we haven’t seen in the West in a long time.”
But on Wednesday afternoon the sky was still blue at the Tejon Pass where Jenifer Natto from Bakersfield was shopping. Natto said she wasn’t worried about the storm, although her home lost power Tuesday night due to high winds.
“I have plenty of food and a gas fireplace,” Natto said, adding that she intends to stay indoors while the storm hits. “I have no plans to go anywhere this weekend.”