Brain Post: Where is the Snowiest Place on Earth?

Clay Malott | | BrainsBrains
Mt. Baker saw the most prolific ski season on record in 1998. Photo credit: Ski Asia

Mt. Baker, WA’s 1998-1999 ski season was one for the history books. They received 1,124 inches of snow. To put that in perspective, that’s 94 feet of snow, which could bury the Statue of Liberty up to its head. It snowed for 35 days straight between mid-November and mid-December. The resort received 102 inches of fresh during its first week open. One in every three days during the entire season was a powder day with over ten inches of fresh snowfall. (snowboarder.com)

That is the largest confirmed snowfall. However, there are limitations to the human observation of snowfall. Exact recordings may not be possible in hard to reach areas. And here is where actual readings stop and the theorizing begins.

There are three primary factors that contribute to snowfall: moisture, temperature, and orography. Moisture in snowfall is supplied by oceans or large lakes, and when the warm, moist airmass hits the mountains, it rapidly gains elevation and loses temperature. Since warm air can hold more moisture than cold air, the same moisture that was comfortably held in the air at sea level reaches 100% RH (relative humidity) and is forced out of the clouds and is deposited on the ground as snow. This is known as a concept called orographic lift.

Orographic lift… the secret to massive snowfall.

Understanding what causes it to snow helps us narrow down our search. Ideally the closer to water the better (more consistent source of moisture and less land there is for snow to fall before reaching the area), and the faster the gain in elevation the better (so that the humidity gradient can force out as much snow as possible). There are few lakes that are large enough and close enough to large mountains to check this box. This leaves coastal mountain ranges as the best bet.

Next, let’s take a look at global wind patterns to help narrow the search even more. Ideally, we want somewhere that gets hammered by global wind patterns. A global wind pattern is relatively consistent throughout the year and will therefore consistently deliver moisture.

Global jet stream map. Photo credit: Netweather

As seen in the above image, the most likely candidates seem to fall in the northern hemisphere. The southern hemisphere’s polar jet stream does not cross any major landmasses (with the exception of Australia, which is too warm to deliver consistent snowfall). Good candidates thus far in the search look like southeastern Alaska, British Columbia, northern Europe, and Japan. However, Japan and northern Europe do not have the elevation necessary to generate significant orographic lift and therefore huge snowfall. This leaves us with the northern Pacific Coast as our best bet.

We can now use this information to use a ratio to figure out some good candidates for the snowiest place on earth. The ratio we are looking at is elevation gain from sea level over distance from the ocean. The larger the ratio, the better bet it is for huge snowfall. For example, Mt. Everest, which obviously has the highest prominence from sea level in the world, probably doesn’t have the world’s most snow because it is located so far inland, so much of the moisture carried in the air falls as rain or snow before reaching the Himalaya. The ratio proposed above helps us eliminate outliers such as Everest. Let’s take a look at some of the leading contenders.

Denali

At first glance, Denali seems like a great contender for the world’s most snowfall. But what can science tell us?
  • Elevation from sea level: 20,310 feet
  • Distance from the ocean: 126mi
  • Ratio: 161.2

Mt. Logan

Mt. Logan, another coastal contender. Photo credit: Wikipedia
  • Elevation from sea level: 19,551 feet
  • Distance from the ocean: 59mi
  • 331.4

Mt. Fairweather

Could Mt. Fairweather be the most prolific peak for snowfall in the world? Photo credit: Photo credit: Wikipedia
  • Elevation from sea level: 15,325 feet
  • Distance from the ocean: 15mi
  • Ratio: 1,022

Wow… Mt. Fairweather looks like a spectacular candidate. It checks off all the boxes: near the ocean, huge elevation gain in a short distance, and located dead center in the northern hemisphere polar jet stream. Hard to say exactly how much snow Mt. Fairweather gets, but we can assure you that the skiing there is… deep, to say the least!

Where do you think receives the most snow in the world? Let us know in the comments!


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