Are pika piles good snow predictors?

Local News

BIG COTTONWOOD CANYON, Utah (News4Utah) –  Predicting long range snowfall isn’t easy to do. Meteorologists pour over weather computer models, but it’s really difficult to decide on weather trends more than seven days out.

Many people have theories on how storms will perform in their area based on geography or past patterns, but a group of folks in Utah closely follow a small animal called the pika. The pika builds piles before winter rolls around. 

“They look like little ewoks if you want to know what they look like. They are completely dependent on providing for themselves during the winter. They don’t hibernate,” said David Reid, Cottonwood Heights resident.

David Reid loves to ski, hike and explore the Cottonwood Canyons. The last several years he’s taken notice of the American Pika and how the size of their hay piles varies each year. Reid believes that the pika is an expert when it comes to winter snowfall. 

“During a short winter as they anticipate, they don’t make very big piles. But when it’s going to be a big winter. those piles can be 3-4 times as tall as they are during the normal winter. This year, I am very excited because the pika piles are larger than normal,”  said Reid. 

Reid says the size of the pika pile has been spot on with our winter pattern. The American Pika is part of the rabbit family, and the herbivores connect plants, leaves and tree branches for their pile. The mammals live among the rocks adjacent to meadows. Scientists say the hay piles actually have more to do with the past and present conditions, not so much with what’s ahead. 

“It’s likely they are reacting to what conditions they are experiencing currently, rather than having some ability to predict what future conditions could be like,” Michael Goates, a plant and wildlife librarian from Brigham Young University, told News 4 Utah.

There are 30 species of pika worldwide, and two types of pikas in North America. The American Pika, which is found in the Cottonwood Canyons, actually thrives in colder temperatures. The animal can’t survive for more than 30 minutes in temperatures at or above 77 degrees.

The hay pile they build in late summer months is not used for insulation int he winter, it’s used a food supply. Once the snow falls, the pika will still forage all the plants around their den. The animal’s piles act as a backup food plan, and some years, there’s just more to gather. The summer pattern and current late summer conditions are most likely to spur the gathering.

“If it’s been a drier summer with less growth, they may actually be trying to create larger hay piles to sustain them through the winter because there won’t be as much readily available,” said Goates. 

While there may be several theories about snowfall, your best bet is to stay with the Pinpoint Weather Team. It’s the only forecast in Salt Lake to be credited as the “Most Accurate Forecast” for the last seven years!

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