Records Show Crater Lake’s Annual Snowfall Consistently Decreasing
April 21, 2014 | Statesman Journal
- Crater Lake National Park is among the snowiest inhabited places in North America, and popular for snowshoeing and skiing, but it’s total snowpack has been declining since the 1950s.credit: Zach Urness / Statesman Journal
Crater Lake National Park is known as one of the snowiest inhabited places in North America, where 44 feet of annual snowfall encircles the phantasmal blue water of the United States’ deepest lake.
Every year, thousands of cross-county skiers and snowshoers journey to the calderaof this exploded Cascade volcano for perhaps the most scenic winter recreation in Oregon.
But while enough snow for recreation is rarely an issue at Crater Lake — even a low season features plenty of powder — Oregon’s only national park has been gradually losing its iconic snow for the past eight decades.
The National Park Service has kept data on snow levels and precipitation at Steel Visitor’s Center (6,540 feet) going back to 1931. While precipitation levels have remained mostly consistent — about 67 inches per year — the amount of snow has slowly declined, with the yearly average dropping by more than 100 inches between 1931 and 2013.
Average seasonal snowfall at Crater Lake National Park by decade at 6,540 feet.
August to July of each season
1931-40 — 614.48
40-50 — 623.00
50-60 — 571.51
60-70 — 507.15
70-80 — 494.54
80-90 — 474.50
90-00 — 493.23
00-10 — 459.39
Does not include four seasons from 1942 to 1945 due to World War II.
Does not include data from current season, which still is in progress, with a snowpack 42 percent of normal as of April 16.
“The really surprising thing was seeing how much snow used to fall here in the 1930s and ’40s,” Crater Lake park ranger Dave Grimes said. “It has been a very gradual decline, but when you look at the numbers, it’s something that definitely sticks out.”
During the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, Crater Lake averaged 614.48, 623 and 571.51 inches of seasonal snowfall, respectively. By 2000 to 2013, the average was 459.73 inches.
The numbers aren’t a straight line down. The 1990 to 2000 years saw a small spike compared with surrounding decades, and the decline from 1970 to 2013 is limited.
But, said park officials, they’re preparing for a future with less snow overall.
“Long-term, we expect less snow to be the new way of life,” Crater Lake National Park management assistant Scott Burch said.
The data doesn’t take into account the current season, the fourth-worst on record and 43 percent of normal as of April 18. The data also is missing four seasons in the 1940s due to World War II. Prior to 1930, the weather station was shuffled between lower and higher locations and is not considered reliable by those to track weather data at Crater Lake National Park.
The data is important because snow is the lifeblood of the national park, Grimes said.
“Snow is tremendously important to the park for a variety of reasons, the first of which is that it provides water for Crater Lake itself,” he said. “One of the reasons it’s considered the cleanest and clearest lake in the world is that it’s mostly pure snowmelt.”
Crater Lake snowmelt also provides drinking water at the park, seasonal water to the Rogue and Klamath basins for irrigation, fish, plants and wildlife. Grimes pointed to animals like the snowshoe hare, voles and other small animals in the park that depend on snow for survival.
“Rain is just not as valuable as snow because it just runs off right away and it’s gone,” Grimes said. “I think a lot of the really heavy rain we get in spring and fall used to fall as snow.”
Of course, even with less snowpack, Crater Lake remains a very white place; it received 219 inches of snow even during this historically bad season and had a good base for much of the season.
And one of the ironies is that the worse the snow conditions in Southern Oregon and Northern California, the better the attendance at Crater Lake. With ski areas closed on Mount Ashland and Mount Shasta, people seeking snow had little choice but Crater Lake.
“It was a busy season,” Grimes said. “Our attendance for guided snowshoe walks shattered our attendance records.”
Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for six years. For more news, adventures and trips see Our Oregon Outdoors on Facebook or @ZachsORoutdoors on Twitter.