Why is Utah known for having the ‘Greatest Snow on Earth’?

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Utah (ABC4) – It might not seem like it this year, but Utah is known for having the “greatest snow on earth.” Why?

“It’s no doubt we have the ‘Greatest Snow on Earth’ in the state of Utah. If you have recreated in our powder, you know it’s different from the wet, heavy snow we see in other parts of the country,” Alana Brophy, Chief Meteorologist for ABC4 News shares.

“Our storm track delivers in Utah, and many times in the North, it’s with the help of the Northwest flow. That allows for a colder air mass to move into the state. Keep in mind, the Great Salt Lake never freezes, which means you get a decent contrast of air masses over the lake which leads to lake enhanced snow, and with our mountain elevations and colder air, plenty of fluffy powder.”

According to the Utah Geological Survey, great snow – along with great skiing and snowboarding – are ultimately the results of plate tectonics. 

Plate tectonics are a massive, irregularly shaped slab of solid rock, generally composed of both continental and oceanic lithosphere. 

“Plate tectonic activity, the relative movement of independent pieces of Earth’s exterior shell, involves the Earth’s plates migrating (changing their relative position), splitting apart (allowing new crust to form where magma wells up), and colliding with each other (destroying old crust in subduction zones),” as stated by the Utah Geological Survey.  

Plate tectonic activity creates the planet’s mountain ranges, volcanic chains, rift valleys, and ocean basins, ridges, and trenches. Utah Geological Survey says snow conditions are a sum of topography, elevation, latitude, and distance to the ocean.

“These factors constrain climate and are shaped by a history of tectonics. Mountains govern the first two factors and all four factors govern snow—its quantity, quality, and duration,” as stated by the survey.  

Many Utah ski resorts are located along the Wasatch hinge line, a band of mountains that run northeast to southwest through central Utah, with origins stretching back nearly a billion years. If you’ve skied in Utah, chances are it was across the Wasatch Front. 

The land along the hinge line split apart over the years, fragmenting the landmass and allowing the oceanic crust to form in the gap. As the gap widened, the region west of the hinge line subsided for a long period of time, ocean waters encroached, and Utah was at the edge of the continent, the Utah Geological Survey shares. 

Hundreds of millions of years of quiescence followed. Throughout this mountain-building time, Utah became steadily more distant from the western ocean.

More time passed and the remains of the mountains underwent the next and current stage of tectonics. 

“Basin and Range extension is stretching and thinning Earth’s crust from the Wasatch hingeline to the Sierra Nevada. This deformation produced faulting that created long and repeating mountain ranges and valleys. Vertical movement on the Wasatch fault has resulted in the Wasatch Range abruptly rising thousands of feet above the adjacent valleys,” the Utah Geological Survey states. 

So how does all this tectonic history give Utah a reputation for having the best snow on earth? There are a few contributing factors.

Location: 

According to the Utah Geological Survey, tectonic plate migration has taken Utah from the equatorial latitudes and landed it squarely in the mid-latitudes. In this zone, weather systems, thousand miles across, pass intermittently from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, delivering the wonderful gift of snow.

Slopes: 

The steep mountains formed over time have provided the perfect home for winter snowpack. The snow and slopes make it possible to ski throughout the winter and, when it melts, it is used as a water source. 

Temperature: 

When we get the snow, we want it to stay! Temperature is largely a function of latitude and elevation. The Utah Geological Survey says the Cottonwood Canyon resorts reside at 8,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level, with daily high temperatures in the winter months of around 31°F, perfect for keeping the snow from melting too quickly. 

Quality of snow: 

Utah’s interior position and the presence of numerous mountain ranges between the state and the ocean make for quality snow, the Utah Geological Survey shares. 

Amount of snow: 

The upper Cottonwood Canyons are among the snowiest locations on Earth, the Utah Geological Survey states. 

Terrain and scenery: 

The Beehive State isn’t called “beaUTAHful” for nothing! People come from all around the world to visit Utah and partake of her beauty. 

Click here to download Pinpoint Weather app for the first alerts on your phone. Always check out your daily weather at Utah’s WeatherRate certified most accurate with ABC4.com’s weather section.

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