March 19, 2015 Thundersnow Event, Ski Santa Fe, NM

by John Farley

As I went up to Ski Santa Fe for a day of skiing on March 19, I made sure to have a couple ways to get video, as thundersnow was in the forecast. Now, I do not take my good cameras with me when I ski, because I do not want to fall on them and ruin them (or myself). But my aging, soon-to-be replaced i-Phone 3 as well as an old point-and-shoot digital camera I have both do have video functions, so I made sure to bring both. Neither is by any means a great video camera, but at least I would have something.

The southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where Ski Santa Fe is located, were to go under a winter storm warning at 3 p.m., with the forecast calling for "numerous snow showers and thunderstorms" with an afternoon accumulation of 3-5 inches, with 4-6 more predicted for the nighttime hours. The setup was indeed favorable for thundersnow, which in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado is climatalogically favored in March. A low pressure system approaching from the southwest would pump in plenty of moisture, while a back-door cold front moving in from the northeast would provide forcing that would add to the lift. And these two features were predicted to come together right near Santa Fe, so that the combined effect of the two would likely be greatest somewhere around the Santa Fe area.

As I skied through the day at Ski Santa Fe, I constantly kept one eye on the weather. Intermittent showers of graupel (snow pellets) occurred through the day, at times mixed with a little ordinary snow and even, for a short time, a little rain. The showers were light, but some of the snow pellets were quite large, close to a quarter inch in diameter. But never enough for any accumulation, up to around 3 p.m. One thing I did notice was that, although cumulus clouds were constantly building up over the mountains, the Rio Grande Valley just to the west of the mountains stayed mostly clear through most of the day. I think that this allowed good heating in the valley that added to the instability of the air rising up over the mountains.

As I was riding up the chairlift around 3:00 p.m., I noticed a change from what had been going on all day. For a while, the updraft base that had been over the ski area most of the day had been backbuilding westward from the mountains - often an indicator of mountain convection becoming more active. Now, in addition to that, I noted that an area of precipitation had formed just to the southwest of the ski area. It was much more visually impressive than any of the light showers of graupel and snow that had been going on intermittently all day, and as it was backlit by the sun behind it in the Rio Grande Valley, the precipitation took on the orange color you often see when looking west at backlit thunderstorms. Some graupel (snow pellets) began to fall again, and when I was a little more than halfway up the lift, I heard a sudden, unmistakable rumble of thunder from the main precipitation area just to my southwest. Thundersnow! I looked at my watch, and saw that the time was just after 3:00. Just then, the lift stopped because someone had fallen getting on or off, and immediately I had visions of being stuck on a stopped lift during a thunderstorm. Definitely not where you want to be!

Fortunately, the lift started up before long, and before the storm could really move in, I was off the lift. Meanwhile, the snow pellets picked up a little, and there was another rumble of thunder around the time I got off the lift. I quickly skied to a spot on the side of the run where I would be out of the way of other skiers and not too much out in the open should CG really get going. I got out the point and shoot camera to get video, but I was thawarted by the combination of a fogging lense, a battery that was not happy about being out in the cold all day, and my failure to remember the steps to get the camera in video mode. I had not used this camera for video for quite some while, and brain-farted on how to get it into that mode. Lesson learned: If you haven't used a camera function in a while, the time to re-learn it is NOT when the storm is already under way! I did manage to snap a couple stills, including this one:

Since I was not getting video, I gave up on that camera and, as the amount of snow pellets falling increased, got out the i-Phone, and started getting video with it. On cue, there was a very bright flash of lightning, and four seconds later, a loud thunderclap. Lightning had struck not much more than 3/4 of a mile to my west! This is shown on the first segment of the video linked below. I was dealing with some fogging on this camera, too, so the video looks a little foggy, but what happens is very clear nonetheless. The flash of lighting appears as a brief flash of a white band across part of the picture, as the phone's camera did not fully resolve the flash. You hear a child who was skiing past me immediately react to the flash, and then the crash of thunder.

At that point, I decided that with CG that close, it was not safe to stay out there any longer, and skied down to the mid-mountain lodge as fast as I could. When I was about halfway there, there was another bright flash, and this time the thunder was only a second later! The strike was less than a quarter mile to my west, probably very near the lift I had just been on. From there on, I was skiing as fast as I could to the mid-mountain lodge!

Once there, I let my cameras warm up a little, got an apres-ski glass of wine, and found a picnic table outside but under a roof where I would have shelter from the storm but a good view of it. Now the precipitation was quite heavy. It went from graupel (snow pellets) to ordinary snow for a while, and then back to graupel. Thunder continued to rumble every minute or so, with flashes of lightning occasionally visible but not as bright as the first two. I got some more video and watched in wonderment as the graupel and snow fell heavily and the thunder rumbled, sometimes within a second or two of lightning when the lightning was visible. Other times, you could just hear the thunder without seeing the lightning. One problem I had in capturing this on video is that, despite the fact that I had charged the batteries on both the camera and the phone before leaving for the ski area, they would not hold the charge very long while capturing video in the cold, wet environment. So my camera time was limited to how long the battery would keep the camera going. Each time after it went out I would let it rest a while and then it would work again for a limited time, but it still limited the amount of video I could get. Still, I did manage to get thunder clearly several times.

Visiting with some ski patrollers standing near me, I learned that the ski area's policy is that once the lifts are closed due to lightning (which was done immediately when the storm started just after 3 p.m.), they do not open again until there has been 15 minutes without lightning or thunder. Just after this policy was explained, there was another long, low rumble of thunder, and the patroller said, "The clock just re-set." The ski area was scheduled to be open until 4:30 p.m., but with thunder and lightning still frequent at 4:00 p.m., the decision was made to close for the day. The next question was how to get the patrol up to the top of the mountain for the end of day sweep, which is done to ensure that all the skiers are off the mountain. Normally they just ride up the lifts to do sweep, but that was not an option today. Instead, they would have to go up on snowmobiles. And since there were not enough snowmobiles to get them all up there without repeated trips up and back down to get more patrollers, they started taking patrollers up around 3:45 or so. They do have a hut at the top of the mountain where they are safe from the lightning.

By 3:45 I was heading down to the base area, enjoying skiing in the inch of so of fresh snow but nervous about the thunder that continued to rumble over my head. I changed out of my ski boots, and went just outside the door of the lodge to get a little more video. That atmosphere cooperated, and quickly gave me another rumble of thunder.

My video, from the first flash of lightning and thunderclap I captured through what I got at the base lodge, can be seen here.

By the time I got to my car around 4:30 (with another flash of lightning with thunder following within a second or so as I was walking through the parking lot), the graupel and snow had accumulated to 3 inches. That's 3 inches in an hour and a half, which amounts to a rate of 2 inches per hour. I tried for a little more thunder video after I got to my car, but no more occurred, so I decided I had better get started down the now rather trecherous road down from the ski area. It was snow-covered down nearly to the state park (elevation around 9,000 feet; the base of the ski area is around 10,300), but the driving conditions were manageable. However, I and a number of other people were caught behind a terrified Oklahoman doing 10 mph when 20 probably would have been fine, so it did take a while to get down. By the time I reached the state park the precipitation was mixed with rain, and mainly rain below there.

The storm continued through the night at the ski area (though without thunder during the night-time hours), dumping 8 more inches overnight, and another inch during snow showers the following day. Including the inch of snow that fell the night before I skied, the storm total at Ski Santa Fe was 13 inches. Here is a picture from the ski area's website taken the next morning:

A couple snow telemetry sites in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains not too far east of the ski area got as much as 19 inches.

This was one of the most impressive thundersnow events I have experienced due to the combination of the frequency and nearness of the lightning and of the duration of the thunder and lightning, which was for about an hour and a half. During a good part of that time the thunder was coming around once a minute, and there was really no time during that hour and a half when it was more than a few minutes between episodes of thunder. Kudos to the Albuquerque National Weather Service office for totally nailing the forecast on this event. As noted above, the forecast was for snow showers and thunderstorms, with the winter storm warning going into effect at 3:00 p.m., and 3-5 inches during the afternoon. As it turned out, the first thunder occurred almost exactly at 3 p.m., with 3 inches of graupel and snow between 3 and 4:30. You can't get a forecast much more accurate than that!

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