Why Utah can claim ‘The Greatest Snow on Earth’

Long ago, shortly after the 1932 Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, meteorologist and avid skier S. D. Green told a Salt Lake Tribune reporter that Utah’s snow and skiing were superior to Lake Placid. He attributed his claim to the “natural advantages” found here and planted, possibly, seeds for the Utah Olympic movement.

On Dec. 4, 1960, a young Salt Lake Tribune editor named Tom Korologos coined the phrase “The Greatest Snow on Earth,” riffing on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus tagline. We all know that P.T. Barnum was the king of Blarney, but this boast would prove to be true. (Could we trademark it if it weren’t?)

As weather forecasting technology advanced, scientists were able to actually prove that, yes, Utah truly has the Greatest Snow on Earth. And, if you ski, you know the thrill of a Utah powder day—you have even more reverence if you’ve experienced East Coast ice sheets or West Coast “Sierra Cement.” Our great snow is not a myth—it’s a reality we experience every winter.

Snow is made up of millions of tiny flakes. To understand snow, you must understand the flake, and we don’t mean ski bums in the bars. Jim Steenburgh, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah, has devoted an entire book to the flake, Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth.

Utah snow is great, Steenburgh says, because of its lower water content and the pattern of its fall. Wetter snow is heavier and falls faster; dry snow falls slowly and has time to become more complex. Snow that’s less than 7% water is considered light, and heavy is over 11%, and creates the Sierra Cement that falls on California and Nevada’s Sierra Range. Man-made snow is really, really dense, with an average of 24-28%. Utah snow, however, has an average density of 8.4 percent. Take that California. (Wait, is that why they all want to move here?)

But the key to our amazing snow is a quick-change temperature fluctuation common to Utah snowstorms. Often a storm starts when it’s warmer, which creates a water-dense base layer, and as the temperatures drop, lighter snow follows.

This is called “right-side up” snowfall (vs. “upside-down” snowfall). The fluffy stuff stays on top and skiers and boarders can float down the slopes (ideally right side up).

All, however, is not great. Utah temperatures are warmer now than recorded just a few years ago. Warmer winters mean more dust in the air and create “snirt,” brown and dirty snow. It’s a word that sounds as gross as the thing it represents. “The role of dust is one that most don’t think about when it comes to the snowpack,” explains Steenburgh. 

Dense dust in the atmosphere creates darker snow. Like wearing a dark-colored knitted sweater, the darker snow absorbs the sun’s light rather than bouncing off a clean, white snowpack. One study found that snirty snow accelerates melting by 25%.

And, as the temperatures rise, it doesn’t take a scientist to figure that more weather events will start as rain instead of snow, so we’ll have denser water-packed snow and suddenly our sneering jokes about Sierra Cement suddenly won’t be as funny anymore. 

And it’s also gloomy for those who don’t use the snow as a playground, but simply marvel at its quiet loveliness. 

As Steenburgh says, “The beauty of the snow is in the eye of the beholder and no science can prove that.”  

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Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pughhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."

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